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How to Make Your Message Sticky (So Readers Remember It Forever and Ever)

How to make your messages stickyI’m pretty sure you know the feeling.

A headline grabs your attention. You click and start reading the post.

But a couple of minutes later, you’re none the wiser.

What’s the post about???

You’ve been consuming words on auto-pilot. Nothing stood out. Nothing made you pay attention. And the message got lost.

In a world of content overload, pixels are cheap and attention comes at a premium. Sharing your ideas may feel impossibly tough.

How can we get our messages heard, understood, and remembered?

Too often content is a dump of information

An About page looks a little bare, so a few extra sentences are strung together. A product description seems too short, so a few bullet points of wordiness are added. And another week requires another blog post. Another offloading of vague ideas.

Too often writers produce content. Without considering their message.

To get people to remember your content, make your message crystal-clear to yourself first. Do you expect the reader to take a specific action? And why would she take this action? How does your content transform her?

Sticky messages are simple

You can summarize sticky ideas in one sentence. For instance:

Sticky content goes one step further than having one simple message.

Sticky messages communicate with vivid words

Imagine selling petrol.

Boring, huh?

How could you give customers a sense that your fuel is better, faster, and more powerful than the competition? For instance:

A tiger in your tank

This Esso (ExxonMobil) advertising slogan immediately conjures up an image of an athletic animal roaring and running. That paints a strong image, right?

Now, imagine writing about an abstract concept like innovation. How can you encourage CEOs to make their companies more innovative without getting stuck in an academic and abstract quagmire?

Scott Anthony explains how CEOs can build an innovation engine in 90 days. Can you hear the engine humming to produce innovative product ideas? The concept of innovation is difficult to grasp, but an engine is tangible.

One more example … let’s think about multitasking. How often do you dip into Twitter, Facebook, or your email, while trying to write an article?

I’ve read numerous times how bad multitasking is. But somehow the message never stuck. I kept multitasking … until I read this post by Ron Friedman:

Suppose each time you ran low on an item in your kitchen—olive oil, bananas, napkins—your instinctive response was to drop everything and race to the store. How much time would you lose? How much money would you squander on gas? What would happen to your productivity?

We all recognize the inefficiency of this approach. And yet surprisingly, we often work in ways that are equally wasteful.

(…) Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. (…) each time we shift our focus, it’s as if we’re taking a trip to the store.

Whoa.

Who would be so crazy to run to the supermarket for single items all the time? The analogy between shopping trips and multi-tasking made it immediately clear to me how stupid I was. I’ve never forgotten this message.

The problem with the human mind is that we struggle to think in abstract concepts.

So to make your message sticky, you need to make it concrete.

Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of experts.

~ Chip and Dan Heath

Readers need to be able to feel or see your ideas. And that’s exactly why metaphors are so powerful.

Metaphors compare something familiar with something new. They can make abstract concepts concrete, easy to understand, and memorable.

What makes a metaphor good?

Let’s first look at some bad metaphors.

A bad metaphor might have lost its visual appeal because it has become a cliché:

Running a business is like a marathon. You have to be in it for the long haul.

Or a bad metaphor might confuse readers because it mixes different images:

Starting a business is like preparing for a marathon. Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket and experiment with what works.

A good metaphor, however, paints a clear picture, and often has an element of surprise:

Running a business is not quite like running a marathon. A marathon runner trains for months, if not years. He knows the track. He knows where the finish will be. He knows he can stop after 42km (26 miles).

But running a business?

Yep, you also start full of energy, and sometimes you struggle to keep moving. But you probably have no idea what track you’ll run, where the opportunities lie waiting for you, and when you’ll eventually get to a finishing line.

Your role as a writer is to paint vivid images in your reader’s mind. In her book Metaphorically Selling, Anne Miller quotes the following figures:

  • We remember 20% of what we hear
  • We remember 80% of what we hear and see
  • When images are vivid, we remember 95%

Does dreaming up good metaphors sound impossible?

You don’t have to be a creative spirit

When I first started using metaphors, my ideas seemed silly, perhaps a little childish.

I was afraid people would laugh at me.

But I tried it out. And readers seemed to like it.

So don’t be afraid. Nurture your sense of play and exercise your creative muscles. Anyone can dream up good metaphors:

  1. Connect your field of expertise to a totally unrelated topic—cooking, parenting, gardening, and traveling are good sources for metaphors. Choose a topic you know well and that your readers can relate, too. For instance, I like long-track speedskating, but don’t choose it for metaphors because it most likely would confuse rather than inform you.

  2. Look for similarities. For instance, compare activities to activities, things to things, and roles to roles. Writing an article (activity) can be like planning a new garden or cooking a dish. A great article (thing) can be like a tasty meal or a flourishing garden. Being a writer (a role) could be like being a chef or a parent.

  3. Explore the tiny details that make your metaphor fascinating. Instead of: Her blog post tasted like a bad dish, try: Her blog post tasted like bland potatoes, slightly burnt and without salt; nobody read beyond the first three sentences.

The power of visual language

Remember 2001?

You probably had a portable disc player. A vast improvement compared to the sound quality of a portable cassette player or a Walkman as Sony used to call them.

While everyone was fussing about improving sound quality, Steve Jobs launched a vastly inferior product—at least in terms of sound.

But within 11 years, he sold 350,000,000 iPods.

Why?

The gazillion-dollar power of visual language:

One thousand songs in your pocket

What are you waiting for?

You can’t expect readers to write down your message on their hand so they’ll remember it.

You’re smarter than that.

So, come on. Let’s go out for a walk. Bring a little notebook and let your mind wander around.

Don’t treat this like an exam. No right answer exists.

Have fun exploring a few crazy ideas. And make your message heard, understood, and remembered.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out these metaphor examples or this introduction to the power of metaphors.

Comments

  1. Thanks Henneke for another great article! It’s easy to overlook the power of visual writing, but your post nicely reveals why we shouldn’t. Thanks again!
    Craig J Todd recently posted…Bam•Brush is an Eco-Friendly Toothbrush Made From Freshly Harvested BambooMy Profile

  2. Too funny that just last night, someone told me I use a lot of metaphors in my “chats”. Upon that statement, I told her it was easier when my mind was trying to take a vacation.
    Oops. 😉
    I agree with you, Henneke, that boring is not memorable. The whole time I was reading this, I was planning to tell you how boring my computer’s start-up slogan is, but I still cannot remember what it is. Hmm…
    However, when husband starts up his car, the start-up slogan there is quite memorable, addressing the driver as if the car were an animate thing, telling him “hello”… Always makes me wonder if they use “bon jour” for cars sold in France, etc.
    Keeps me thinking about how thoughtful they are to include this unnecessary greeting.
    Makes me think they are always thinking.
    Totally engages my mind until I have to tell myself, “Hey! It’s just a car!”
    Katharine recently posted…Do NOT Try Homeschooling.My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Yes, I often come up with metaphors when I’m taking a break, too. It’s funny how our minds, work, isn’t it?

      Good to see you again, Katharine!

  3. Thanks Henneke! A great reminder to check for cliches (boy it’s easy to miss them, isn’t it), and to be brave when it comes to metaphor.
    Lisa recently posted…The All-Time Best Book on How to Overcome Creative Blocks and Tell Your Inner Critic To Go Jump In A Polluted LakeMy Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Yep, you’re right. It can be difficult to avoid clichés. The easiest way to avoid clichés, is to make a generic statement more specific and add a tiny detail.

      So, for instance, “writing a blog is like running a marathon” is boring. But when adding some details makes it instantly more interesting: “preparing to write a blog post is like preparing for the marathon. Before you start, make sure you wear your lucky underpants and listen to your favorite music to get in the right mood. You might also want to drink a cup of lukewarm tea first.”

      • I’ll keep that in mind. I hadn’t thought to expand on cliche to make it my own. It does make a difference doesn’t it. Excellent. Thank you, again!

  4. Thank you once again for a great post. I have allot more work to do to achieve great results.
    I was actually wondering the other day, thinking to myself I keep on writing, but it seems as if the people are going into picture mode……they only read pictures and the longer the post is, the less they read. That’s why I liked the way you put it: pixels are cheap and attention comes at a premium.
    Keep well and keep up the good work – at least we still read
    Linda recently posted…Not making money with your blog?My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      I don’t think it’s true that people don’t read anymore. It might be harder to attract attention and to keep people focused on your content, but people still read.

      I read a lot… both blog posts and books.

      Glad to hear you’re still reading, too!

  5. Love the way you give common-sense advice in an uncommon way, Henneke. Your posts make me think, make me smile, make me a more aware writer. Thank you. Please don’t stop.

    • Henneke says:

      What a wonderful compliment. Thank you so much, Mary Beth.

      And don’t worry, I’m not planning to stop 😀

  6. Yep, our words need to paint a picture even a blind man can see!

  7. “A tiger in your tank” is actually a slogan that Esso used in the U.S. in their late 1960’s marketing campaign. They had bumper stickers and, for some reason, my brother and I had them stuck to our bedroom doors for years.
    Doug Francis recently posted…Pavlov’s Dog or Today’s Home Buyer?My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Yep, you’re absolutely right. The reference to the 1990s is completely wrong. I just double checked and the slogan was actually written in 1959.

      I’m going to correct that in the blog post now. Thank you!

  8. Well said. I wonder why so few people do it consistently (including me).
    Kitty Kilian recently posted…Wat doen we met social media? (reclame maken voor je blog bij content overwhelm)My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Yes, very few people use visual language and metaphors. I’m not sure why. My personal hesitation in the beginning was that I felt silly. I also know that sometimes people feel nervous, because they think they’re not creative enough. Or perhaps people don’t see the value of visual language?

      What do you think?

  9. Thanks Henneke,

    Wonderfully put.
    It’s sticking!

    Much Love,

    L.

  10. Excellent advice. Visual writing is not my strong suit so this post is very useful. Thanks.

  11. Paul Williams says:

    Thanks for another piece of writing insight Henneke. Your mind is a waterfall of good ideas! Paul

  12. Henneke, as always, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I love your explanations and clear, descriptive copy. Thank you.
    Shelly Moreau recently posted…Include This Secret in Your Property DescriptionsMy Profile

  13. Stellar write up of one of my favorite concepts from one of my favorite books!

    😉

    I use the iPod metaphor in ALL my writing and speech courses as an example of pathos — mini story telling — “this thing you don’t understand is like this thing you do.”
    Aaron Orendorff recently posted…Top 10 Copywriting Books from the Top 10 Online Copywriters: The Ultimate ListMy Profile

    • Henneke says:

      The iPod slogan is amazingly powerful, isn’t it? Such a strong message in so few words.

      Which is your fave book? “Made to Stick” or “Metaphorically Selling”?

      • Metaphorical Selling is new to me … so on account of my ignorance, I’d have to say Made to Stick.

        Actually, I know another professor up in Portland who uses it for his Introduction to Public Speaking courses. So much good stuff!
        Aaron Orendorff recently posted…Top 10 Copywriting Books from the Top 10 Online Copywriters: The Ultimate ListMy Profile

        • Henneke says:

          “Made to Stick” is my all-time favorite business book.

          But I highly recommend “Metaphorically Selling”, too. It has actually been renamed: “The Tall Lady With the Iceberg.” The book targets sales professionals, but most ideas apply to blogging and communication in general, too. It’s a super-practical guide on generating and using metaphors.

  14. Hi Henneke –
    What you said about running a marathon perfectly summed up what I tried to convey to a friend who just had her first book published.

    “Running a business is not quite like running a marathon. A marathon runner trains for months, if not years. He knows the track. He knows where the finish will be. He knows he can stop after 42km (26 miles).

    But running a business?

    Yep, you also start full of energy, and sometimes you struggle to keep moving. But you probably have no idea what track you’ll run, where the opportunities lie waiting for you, and when you’ll eventually get to a finishing line.”

    You want to work hard, and do your best – but sometimes the biggest challenge is to know where to focus your energy, and what project to prioritize.

    • Henneke says:

      Yep, that’s so true. And when running a business, it’s also important to stay open-minded about ideas and opportunities we hadn’t thought about before we started. My business is quite different from how I envisioned it!

  15. Yes, vivid language is important. All the great ad men and women knew this. I always look at my headlines before hitting “publish” and there’s always a better, more powerful word to use. That’s a huge lesson. Thanks.

  16. Cracking thought.
    I guess the only problem I see is that people scan a lot. Me included. Which means you either use the visual metaphors in the subtitles and confuse the hell out of the reader. Or use them in the main text and risk them not being read.
    Still, I think if you go through the effort to write something well and polish it before publishing, this strategy is definitely going to make it sound better than the millions of mass produced blog posts.

    • Henneke says:

      Sure, you always get people who scan and who you can’t tempt to start reading. But the job of the writer is to make the headline and subheads so good that they entice scanners to start reading. 😉

      The subheads can be a mix – they can arouse curiosity by hinting at a metaphor; or they can promise what you learn if you continue reading.

      The intro has a role to play, too. If you can grab your reader with the first sentence, you have a bigger chance he keeps reading.

      • That’s a very good thought Henneke, the one about using a visual hook in the introduction paragraph. If an intro is flat I just scan the rest…just in case…
        But if it’s written really well, I actually take the time to read, sometimes even to the end. 🙂

  17. Hey Henneke,

    Whenever I see fit, I use a lot of metaphors which are based on my own experience, and the experiences of others. The goal is to get your audience to relate to what you’re trying to get across to them. I like to use the type of experiences where “it wasn’t funny back then, but we can look back and laugh at it now”.

    Thanks for sharing Henneke! Have a good one!
    Sherman Smith recently posted…Why Should Solo Entrepreneurs Like You Focus On Blogging?My Profile

  18. Henneke, would you go back and rewrite old posts that you plan to keep, to make them more exciting, or not?
    And if you did, would you leave them in the past or repost them, as a general rule? Thanks!
    Katharine recently posted…Do NOT Try Homeschooling. Part 2My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      I’ve not yet gone back and rewritten old posts. I think if they’re out of date but still get a lot of traffic, then I’d definitely update them. And it can be a good idea to re-publish “classic” posts as old posts tend to get buried over time. I’ve seen both Copyblogger and Boost Blog Traffic re-publishing old post. If I remember correctly, they add a note of the editor explaining why the post is re-published.

  19. You mention Esso gas and a “tiger in the tank,” and I’m thinking, how old is this Henneke person?! Esso changed its name to Exon here in the states in the 70s… but then I googled it and found it kept its name elsewhere.

    Having made that almost completely irrelevant point, your focus on creating a visual image for our readers—something you do quite often—is so, so brilliant! And it really can’t be said enough. We don’t have to be Monet to create lasting images for our readers.

  20. Another great article! I need to do this a lot more than I have thus far. Like you, I guess I fear looking stupid. But the truth is, it’s more likely to be more engaging. Getting out of my own way….. 🙂
    Terri Cruce recently posted…Are You Ready To Be An Entrepreneur?My Profile

  21. Annamarie says:

    Hello Henneke,
    It is true that a good blogpost gets read, some boring videos get stopped and deleted.
    I have deleted many badly presented videos, watched great ones eagerly.
    Got hooked on the Hay-House Summit ( my way of life and thinking),
    Deleted many blogs unread for the first time in my online life.
    But…. I always read your blog even if I think, maybe I will give this one a miss, I am simply too busy. Well I can’t do it…. I have to read it.

  22. Hi Henneke,
    Thank you for the wonderful and inspiring blog posts you write.
    I am a 70 year old highly experienced Aussie cake artist who lost the ability to actually do the work of creating cakes due to an hereditary disease that has hugely prevented much of my physical mobility, with that then complicated by another chronic condition that has made it worse and any physical activity very challenging, 15 years ago.
    I want to blog about sugar art teaching others that which over 40 years of experience in all areas of sugar art has taught me. Not an easy goal when one is somewhat physically handicapped and I am doing my utmost to remain positive.
    I just want you to know that I learn a lot from your blog and keep copies of your posts to refer back to. I also copy the comments as well because of the help I get from them and the links to the people who make them.

    Thank you and your readers for making this possible.

    • Henneke says:

      I am sorry to hear about your condition, but I’m glad to hear you’re finding new ways to channel your creativity. Art nurtures our soul.

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Summer. Nice to “meet”!

  23. You did it again!
    Sticky messages..reminds me of Sticky Toffee Pudding/Glue/Velcro.
    Indeed it is weird the way our minds work.

    Sorry we haven’t been in touch – off now for adventures but would love to meet up when we get back.

    • Henneke says:

      Yuck. Sticky toffee pudding. Makes me feel nauseous having to think about it!

      And yes, I’d love to hear about your adventures! Let me know when you’re back?

  24. Yet another perfect article. It is always such a pleasure reading your posts, and one that I wait for.
    Thank you Henneke, for being the person you are giving the rest of us hope, AND for always replying, to our comments and emails.

  25. Henneke,

    Great stuff as always.

    I was reading Bob Bly’s Copywriting Handbook again a few days ago, and “Put a Tiger In Your Tank” was one of his examples of a command headline. And it really delivers a message.

    Visual writing is amazing and something I need to do more of. I haven’t tried metaphors because I’m honestly intimidated by them … same as analogies. But, in order to be a better writer and really buy into the visual writing aspect, I have to practice them more.

    Perhaps I should just go for it, like you did. Possibly.

    Thanks again for a great post and a great read.

    – Andrew
    Andrew recently posted…A Crazy Blogging Experiment To Increase My Blog GrowthMy Profile

    • Henneke says:

      You can start small – you don’t have to write a whole post using a metaphor as theme. Pick just one key point and see whether you can create a comparison.

      Doing a little warm-up exercise can help. Blog traffic was like …; I was as tired as …; She was as stressed as …

      And yep, just go for it, and see what happens. Blogs evolve and grow through experimentation 🙂

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