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Why do some great ideas get remembered, while others shrivel and die?
How do some ideas wriggle their way into our grey matter and reside there for years?
Joel Stein, Author of Idea Tactics (you can pre-order the deck, or get your digital cards now) hosted a live session for the Pip Decks community to answer this question. Featuring a sneak preview of some Ideas Tactics, with a dash of science, history and popular culture.
Each of the headings below corresponds to one of the chapters in the video above, so you can skim through and then watch the relevant section if you want to dive a little deeper. Let’s get started!
Introducing: Joel and his mindworms
Joel’s Idea Tactics are designed to help teams find, pick and polish their very best ideas. He’s been working in digital for a decade, and is currently Content and Creativity Lead at Code Computerlove.
Why and how we remember stuff is complicated - science is only just starting to really understand cognition and the brain in detail. There’s so much to say on memory, so we’re focussing on a stimulus-centric view of memory. What does that mean? Memory is often looked at through two main lenses:
- Subject-centric: what’s going on in your brain when you remember stuff?
- Stimulus-centric: what makes images, ideas, things memorable?
We want to know about memorable things (mindworms), so that we can create them ourselves: hence, a focus on the stimulus-centric approach.
Science on mindworms
Annoyingly, there’s not a huge amount of scientific consensus on what properties make things memorable and why, despite a lot of research.
That said, scientists can still pretty confidently guess which images are going to be most memorable to people, even across different cultural groups… even if they’re not sure why.
So there’s not too much hard science in this - we’ll look at some frameworks that provide practical guidance, which is much more useful!
We’ll start with the concept of memes (not those images with the white text over them. Although…).
This is the theory that ideas behave similarly to genes. Richard Dawkins coined the term in his book The Selfish Gene. It basically means that ideas - or ‘memes’ - can replicate, evolve, spread and go extinct, existing in a form of Darwinian competition against each other. They compete against each other for our attention.
Joel paints a picture of a world made up of brains, in which there are far more memes then there is brain-space to accommodate them. Some of those memes will find a home in a brain, or brains, while others will fade into obscurity.
Memes use imitation to spread - we’re just the vehicle for that! Some examples of memes:
- Knowledge of how to do something (start a fire)
- Brand wording (Beanz Meanz Heinz!)
- Rhymes you learn in school
- Conspiracy theories (flat earth)
- Our understanding of what aliens must look like
They don’t have to be useful to spread. The idea of memes is, itself, a meme!
Making memes memorable
A framework to help us think about this comes from the book Made to Stick that uses the memetic framework to explain why persistent ideas spread. If you want to create a memorable idea that will spread quickly, it’s wise to make sure it meets some of these SUCCES requirements:
- Simple: is it easy to repeat (spread)?
- Unexpected: is it surprising in some way?
- Concrete: does it paint a clear picture?
- Credible: is the source trustworthy, are there statistics or vivid details?
- Emotional: does it evoke hopes and/or fears or engage our sense of identity?
- Stories: does it describe some sort of causal chain (cause and effect)?
Stories are extremely memorable, so this is a good moment to mention the Storyteller Tactics Pip Deck, which guides you through finding and using the right story for your goals.
So what are some of the most enduring, powerful mindworms?
Superstitions are a great example of sticky ideas. We can probably repeat tens of superstitions even if we don’t believe them ourselves.
We all know how many years of bad luck you get if you break a mirror… but did you know that it dates back to ancient Rome? It hits many of the criteria mentioned above: it’s simple, unexpected, emotional, concrete and stories (cause and effect).
Emotion is a powerful factor in deciding whether or not we will remember something. But are we hardwired to pay more attention to certain types of emotion? Well, no. It’s the intensity of the emotion that determines the impact on your memory. So whatever you make people feel, make them feel a lot of it!
There are lots of other rules that can be applied here, but the peak-end rule feels particularly appropriate: you’re most likely to remember an event based on the lowest point, the highest point and the end point.
There’s an Idea Tactic for this rule that helps you identify what those points will be, and to make the most of the opportunity they represent.
The element of surprise
Unexpectedness is a tricky one to measure and manage - it’s not simply a ‘more is better’ situation. Joel introduces the Wundt curve, which shows how different levels of unexpectedness can make us feel.
Nothing unexpected? Boring. Quite unexpected? That stimulates feelings of curiosity (a good thing!). Totally unexpected? Well, that’s going to make people feel anxious.
So weird is good, yes. Weird is different from the things around you. Being wacky for the hell of it though? Probably not. Just different to the other ideas you’re competing against. And that’s also thanks to the Von Restorff effect: people remember what seems unusual compared with the other stuff that’s competing for their attention.
Repetition is memorable. Repetition is memorable
Humpty Dumpty sat…
You finished the sentence didn’t you?
But do you know why? It’s got the three Rs: rhyme, rhythm and repetition. And that’s why we teach kids nursery rhymes - they’re easy for them to remember even from a young age.
So how can you employ repetition? Joel talks through a few different approaches:
- Polyptoton: repeating words that share the same root (e.g., destroy, destroyed, destroying).
- Anadiplosis: the use of the final word in a sentence as the first word in the following sentence (Yoda does this a lot!).
- Epizeuxis: this is good, old-fashioned immediate repetition of a single word or phrase (e.g., Education! Education! Education!).
Summon your own mindworm
Okay so moving onto the active pursuit of summoning your own mindworms. First step? Give your idea a memorable name. The Mega Memo Idea Tactic will help you get that right; essentially, you want to choose something that your target audience will understand and can easily remember (so, try making it simple, as a bare minimum!). It also helps you write-up your idea in order to share it and get buy-in.
As memorable as a metaphor
Metaphors are your friend! Particularly sensory metaphors: taste, sight, touch and smell tap into something almost pre-linguistic. In fact, Joel thinks ‘Sensory’ should be added to the SUCCES framework described above (not just because it would correct the spelling of success).
Your metaphor doesn’t have to be convoluted; take a look at Joel’s example:
- When you show someone lots of messages at once, they struggle to remember any of them. A single message is more memorable.
- Throw someone one tennis ball and they’ll catch it. Throw them lots and they’ll drop them all.
Which one do you think you’d remember? The tennis ball metaphor is so much more palatable.
In fact ‘mindworm’ is kind of a metaphor itself, which makes it a great title for a live talk!
If you’d like to get the information above distilled into a short summary in video format, watch the Snappy summary chapter of the video above! Featuring: a carefully crafted poem that explains the value of rhyme, rhythm and repetition. And ends somewhat unexpectedly.
In this section, Joel jumps straight into using some good old (well, new) Idea Tactics to show you how to employ what you’ve just learned. Bonus tip: the session used Butter.io (a video conferencing tool) and Miro (a shared digital workspace), which is a fantastic way to run really engaging sessions with remote participants. Watch this to see it in action!
We will add links to more detail on each of the cards once the deck is released.
How might we?
The first tactic used is How Might We? (also seen in Workshop Tactics) - this helps you agree on the problem you’re trying to solve by describing it as a problem.
How might we invent a new superstition that could last for thousands of years?
Superstitions don’t have to be grounded in truth; they usually feature a rule and a consequence.
Joel kicks off the participation with the Dream Sketch Idea Tactic to get people loosened up and thinking creatively. It’s as simple as it sounds: draw a scene based on a dream you had, or if you can’t remember your dreams just choose a vivid memory and add a surreal detail.
Another session that was first seen in Workshop Tactics and has been adapted for Idea Tactics - Mind Map a staple approach for exploring ideas around a theme.
The group spend some time writing down all the words and ideas that they connect to ‘Superstition’. It creates a kind of ‘concept space’ in your head, and gives you ideas to refer back to later on in the process. Some of the ideas that came up in this session:
- Irrational ideas
- Tied to ‘luck’ - good or bad
- Hard to delete
- Promote awkward behaviours
Get a closer look at the T-bar approach for catching and describing ideas. In this case, it’s related to inventing a superstition! This is where those Mind Map ideas can come in handy.
Joel talks you through creating a title, description and sketch to help you refine your idea. The description brings in those principles you learned earlier on - what have you included that gives your superstition the best chance of persisting?
Ece’s new superstition: if a cat looks up at you three times in a row, you’ll find three successful business ideas within three years - and get rich! This employs concreteness (the number three), repetition and the sensory element of a cat looking at you. And of course, it implies good luck (and richness is emotionally motivating, too)!
Joel critiques the ideas, so you can see the process of refining your ideas in action. In this case, he suggested also employing Simplicity: if a cat touches you three times, you'll become rich. Some other ideas:
- Three marbles a day keeps indigestion at bay!
- A 7am water drink keeps away the COVID stink (this uses a prevalent fear at the moment!)
- One apple a day keeps the doctor away; two apples a day keeps two doctors away.
- A tape measure around the belly is better than a tapeworm in the belly.
- An unfinished slice of birthday cake means you do not wish the person to have a happy birthday.
Remember, these sessions are attended by groups of people that don't know each other and are not collaborating on a known project - so if this is the creativity this process inspires, imagine what your team could produce!
If you are creating something that you want to make really memorable, try to incorporate some of the following elements:
- Simplicity: is it easy to repeat (spread)?
- Unexpectedness: is it surprising in some way?
- Concreteness: does it paint a clear picture?
- Credibility: is the source trustworthy, are there statistics or vivid details?
- Emotionality: does it evoke hopes and/or fears or engage our sense of identity?
- Storyness: does it describe some sort of causal chain (cause and effect)?
- Sensory: does it include elements like touch, smell or taste?
- Repetitiveness: are any elements or words repeated to help it stick?
- Rhyme: do you have any rhyming words that will help people recall it easily?
- Metaphors: can you use a metaphor to simplify the message?
If you need some help refining your idea, either alone or with a group, you can work through the How might we? - Dream sketch - Mind Map - T-bar approach.
And that’s a wrap! Remember, you can buy any deck that includes Vault access or get your own Vault key for access to video tutorials, Miro templates and more!