To Mobilize an Idea, Appeal to Self-Interest

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the key to getting people to onboard with an idea? How do communicate an idea in such a way that gets people to not only listen to it, but act on it?

If you want people to hear your idea and act on it, show them how they will benefit. Ultimately, you can use this appeal to self-interest to get them to care about something else.

Continue reading to learn how to make your message stick with an appeal to self-interest.

Appeal to Self-Interest

Another way to make people care about something is to appeal to self-interest: tell them how they personally will benefit from acting on your message. Again, advertising offers many examples.

Mail-order ads were once a common method of advertising. These ads appeared in newspapers and magazines and people who wanted the product filled out an order form and mailed it to the company with their money. Mail-order ads often used an appeal to self-interest to make people feel more capable, popular, or attractive.

The most effective ads that incorporated an appeal to self-interest were written by John Caples, who basically invented the genre and wrote a textbook on it. One of his classics was an ad for a correspondence course in music. It read: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano … But When I Started to Play!” The technique was so successful and has so many applications that it’s still used today. (“My Husband Laughed When I Ordered …”)

Caples said that in every headline, he tried to suggest something the reader would want. He focused on benefits rather than the features of a product. For instance, if you sell grass seed, instead of stressing that your grass seed is the best, tell people they can have their neighborhood’s best lawn. 

Noble Self-Interest

Self-interest isn’t always crass; sometimes it can be noble. For instance, people may join the military or choose certain occupations for altruistic reasons. They may contribute to a cause because they truly want to improve others’ lives, not because they want to see their name on a plaque.

Abraham Maslow’s 1954 hierarchy of needs is useful as a reminder to appeal to people’s altruistic motivations more often. Maslow identified a list of needs that motivate people, arranged as a ladder or progression. He contended that people start at the bottom, fulfilling physical and security needs first, and end at the top with self-actualization and transcendence. But later research suggests people pursue multiple needs, including the higher-order needs, at the same time. 

Floyd Lee, a retired U.S. Army and Marine Corps cook, who returned to Iraq to run a unique mess hall for U.S. troops, is an example of a person motivated by higher values. His mess hall outside the Baghdad airport became legendary among soldiers for its exquisitely prepared food and welcoming atmosphere—he had the same raw materials to work with as every other dining hall, but he elevated serving food to soldiers to a personal mission. He saw himself as not just in charge of food service, but also of morale, and that attitude guided everyone who worked in his dining hall.

The lesson is to not underestimate people’s altruistic side when you make an appeal to self-interest.

To Mobilize an Idea, Appeal to Self-Interest

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chip Heath and Dan Heath's "Made to Stick" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Made to Stick summary:

  • What makes some messages “stick” while others go unremembered
  • The six criteria for shaping your message so it resonates
  • Why many companies are blinded by “the curse of knowledge”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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