Training that Workers Will Remember: Six Sticky Tips

Made to Stick Book Image

Want some easy tips to follow to make training that sticks? To create training workers will remember and apply on the job? To help you attain the business goals you’re trying to reach?

Although inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point and written for a popular reading audience instead of exclusively for training professions, the book Made to Stick (more details about the book will come below, don’t worry) is a great source of information about current research into what makes things memorable and what causes people to act.

As trainers, we want to craft memorable training and we want training that workers will apply on the job. So you can see how the messages in this book will make your training better. It’s even a book you will notice a lot of training professionals referring to.

Interested in learning some of the tips from Made to Stick? If so, start by taking a little time to read the two selections below. As you read, ask yourself which you’re more likely to remember later–one or two days later, but even an hour or fifteen minutes later, too.

When you’re done we’ll cycle back and explain how this all relates to effective workforce training.

“A friend of a friend of ours is a frequent business traveler. Let’s call him Dave. Dave was recently in Atlantic City for an important meeting with clients. Afterward, he had some time to kill before his flight, so he went to a local bar for a drink.

He’d just finished one drink when an attractive woman approached and asked if she could buy him another. He was surprised but flattered. Sure, he said. The woman walked to the bar and brought back two more drinks-one for her and one for him. He thanked her and took a sip. And that was the last thing he remembered.

Rather, that was the last thing he remembered until he woke up, disoriented, lying in a hotel bathtub, his body submerged in ice.

He looked around frantically, trying to figure out where he was and how he got there. Then he spotted the note:


A cellphone rested on a small table beside the bathtub. He picked it up and called 911, his fingers numb and clumsy from the ice. The operator seemed oddly familiar with his situation. She said, “Sir, I want you to reach behind you, slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?”

Anxious, he felt around behind him. Sure enough, there was a tube.

The operator said, “Sir, don’t panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested. There’s a ring of organ thieves operating in this city, and they got to you. Paramedics are on their way. Don’t move until they arrive.” [Source: see note 1]

Now, the second:

“Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modeled, drawing on existing practice,” it begins, going on to argue that “[a] factor constraining the flow of resources to CCIs is that funders must often resort to targeting or categorical requirements in grant making to ensure accountability.” [Source: see note 2]

OK, now that you’ve read them both, which are you more likely to remember? Why?

And how can you apply this to the training you create? Read on to learn how.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, a Book by Chip & Dan Heath

The two excerpts above are both drawn from the beginning of the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip & Dan Heath. Their point in including the two written selections was to give an example of something that’s easy to remember (the organ thief story) and something that’s not (the comprehensive community building discussion). And then to get you thinking why one’s more memorable than the other.

You agreed with us, and with the brothers Heath, that the organ heist story was more memorable, right?

If so, let’s move on and learn more about the book and see how we can apply it to training. If not, maybe it’s worth reading the two samples one more time and trying that test again…

What the two brothers Heath set out to do in writing this book is to determine what makes some things memorable (and what others are so easily forgotten). In doing so, they came up with a list of six characteristics:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotions
  6. Stories

The Heaths provide an easy way to remember these items, too, borrowing the first letters to spell the word: SUCCES(s).

It’s worth noting that they don’t believe these are the only things that make something memorable, and they don’t believe a specific communication has to have all six elements in order to be memorable.

So let’s take a quick look at the key points in this book and see how they are related to workforce training issues.

The Curse of Knowledge–When Knowing Something Well Leads to Bad Training

The Heath brothers noted one “curse” that makes it harder to create something memorable. They call it “The Curse Of Knowledge.” That’s maybe not what you were expecting–after all, we typically think of knowledge as a good thing, right?

By this, they mean that it’s often harder for someone who knows something very well to communicate something about that topic to a person who isn’t familiar with the topic and still make it memorable. And so that curse of knowledge makes it hard for subject matter experts and trainers, who are trying to deliver information to workers, to effectively transfer the information.

As a trainer, you probably already know that to create effective training, you’ve got to start by putting yourself in the trainees’ shoes. By trying to imagine how they’ll approach the training based on their current, existing knowledge of the training topic, you can then create training that’s more appropriate to them and that they’ll learn/remember/apply more effectively.

That’s one of the reasons we do our training needs analyses, right?

On the flip-side, if you don’t step into the employee’s shoes (and minds) for a minute, it’s easy to create training that flies over their head, that’s based on assumptions that they know things they don’t know, that leaves important stuff out, that moves too quickly, or that jams too much information in.

This can be a problem for any trainer. It’s an even bigger problem when you’re working with a subject matter expert (SME) who really knows and loves the stuff.

Here’s how the Heath brothers discuss what they call the “Curse of Knowledge:”

“This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share out knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listener’s state of mind….

There are, in fact, only two ways to beat the Curse of Knowledge. The first is not to learn anything. The second is to take your ideas and transform them.” (See note 3)

And that’s what the Heath brothers think you can do–transform your knowledge and ideas so they’re more memorable–by using the tips in their book.

Which we’ll start discussing now. We promise. 🙂

Training that Sticks Tip 1: Simplicity

The first technique is simplicity.

By this, the Heath brothers note they really mean two things:

  • Identifying a single, critical, “core” message you’re trying to communicate
  • Presenting that “core” message in a concise, “compact” manner

As learning professionals, this makes sense to us. In fact, many trainers commonly use an acronym for this idea: KISS, which stands for “keep it simple, stupid!”

We know that before we create training, we’re supposed to create one or more learning objective. The learning objective(s) is the essential, absolutely “core” message of the training. That’s what our employees need to know, and that’s what our training should communicate (and only that).

Want more information about learning objectives? Download our free Learning Objectives Guide.

Not only that, we know we’re supposed to keep our training short (in fact, there’s a big movement toward “microlearning” going on right now). This includes not only the earlier note about identifying learning objectives and creating training that’s about nothing but the learning objective, but also editing in a merciless fashion to present that information very briefly.

For example, check out our Tips for Writing Training Materials, which notes the importance of keeping things brief.

At Convergence, we do a lot of things to keep our training simple. We create and focus on learning objectives, of course, and we write and then edit our materials to cut out as much deadweight as possible. Another thing we do is has to do with the visual nature of our training materials. Although we have the ability to make very detailed, life-like visual training materials, and we DO that when the circumstances call for it, we also have the ability to “strip away” a lot of details from the environment that don’t support the core message of our training, as shown in the still image below.


An example of keeping it simple from an eLearning course on valves.

Proverbs as a Model of Simplicity and Memorable Communication

The Heath brothers give some tips for communicating simply, too. For one, they suggest looking at proverbs as a good example. Proverbs are effective because they:

  • Are short
  • Use figurative language–figurative language is symbolic language that is less concerned with the literal meaning of the words used and more concerned with using terms to show relationships between ideas
  • Use descriptive language that appeals to the senses (Yep, we mention the importance of descriptive language our Tips for Writing Training Materials article, too)

Consider this famous proverb which you’ve probably read before, and which you probably also remember and can easily state in your own words.

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Source: See note 4)

Short? Check–32 words to discuss economics, eternity, and divine salvation.

Figurative language? Check–we’re talking about camels passing through the eyes of needles, right?

Descriptive language that appeals to the senses? Check–it’s easy to visualize a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle–this isn’t abstract.

Here’s another–test it for yourself.

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. (Source: See note 5).

Ask yourself–is it short; does it use figurative language; does it use descriptive language that appeals to the senses; and, most importantly, is it memorable?

Our point here isn’t to give you a religion lesson, but to demonstrate how effectively these proverbs use figurative and descriptive language to clearly communicate complicated and abstract points to create sayings that have been remembered for thousands of years. No matter your religious beliefs, that’s impressive communication, and impressive memorability.

Figurative Language: Analogies, Metaphors, Similes, and More for Memorable Training

Expanding on their tip to use figurative language, the Heath brothers call out in particular the use of:

  • Analogies
  • Metaphors

Analogies and metaphors are types of figurative language, after all.

You can take that recommendation to use analogies and metaphors on faith (ha!-no religion pun intended), or you can look further into why the Heaths recommend this. They (and other learning experts) note that people “process” new information by integrating it with existing information that’s “stored” in the brain in something brain experts called schemas. Using analogies and metaphors aids this process.

Here’s an example of a “visual metaphor” from a training course we made. The image uses an idea people are probably familiar with–a skydiver falling through the sky–to help the learners understand an industrial process in which solids settle through a solution.


This still from an eLearning course about paper manufacturing uses a visual metaphor to explain an industrial process that’s too small to see with the naked eye and that takes place inside a closed vessel.

Read our article on using analogies, metaphors, similes, and comparisons in training

Read our article on adult learning principles, which notes that adults come to training with pre-existing knowledge and life experiences

Read more about how we learn, including schemas in long-term memory (this specialized term is one of the few that the Heaths keep coming back to again and again, partly because it’s so important in how people learn, and so it may be worth getting to know better)

Say It Up Front: Don’t Bury the Lead

The final tip the Heath brothers provide for keeping things simple is one they borrow from journalism: don’t bury the lead.

What this means is to put the important information up front, not later. Let people know what the training will cover right at the beginning. Don’t keep them in the dark.

Training that Sticks Tip 2: Unexpectedness

The next of the six tips is unexpectedness. Give the employees something they weren’t expecting.

You’ve already seen an example of this. Remember when the Heaths said that the Curse of Knowledge is an enemy of good training? That’s unexpected, right?

To put that in learning terms, and to return to the one bit of learning jargon the Heath brothers consistently return to in the book, what you’re doing here is creating a “disruption” with the employees’ existing schema (remember, that basically means what they already know or think they know about the topic).

Here’s a reminder about how we learn and where schema fit in.

Here’s a reminder that one of the adult learning principles is to remember that adults come to training with a lifetime of knowledge and experience–in this case, you’re presenting information that, at least initially, challenges what they know.

Here’s a simple example of using an element of unexpectedness from a Convergence Training safety training course. We included the “Jolly Roger” beloved by pirates everywhere in this danger symbol. This momentarily surprises and captures the attention of learners.


A simple example of an unexpected visual in a safety eLearning course.

And here’s another example, from our H1N1 Flu course. The cartoon-ish H1N1 flu virus isn’t what workers expect to see when they launch a course about flu prevention. That unexpected playful nature gets their attention and their buy-in, at least momentarily.


This image from a Flu Awareness eLearning course represents the flu virus in an unexpected manner that grabs the attention.

Surprise Then Make Sense

However, it’s not as easy as simply being shocking and gimmicky. I could wear unexpected, outrageous clothing in a training session or deliver training in the form of interpretative dance, both of which would be unexpected but neither of which would guarantee that the training’s memorable.

Instead, the Heath brothers recommend you be unexpected while also:

  • Avoiding gimmickry by making sure your unexpectedness still supports your key message
  • Providing insight by surprising people and then helping them make sense of the information and see how it’s all connected

Here’s a four-point plan that the Heath brothers suggest for doing this:

  1. Identify the core, central message you need to communicate
  2. Figure out why employees don’t know or aren’t doing it now (why doesn’t it happen naturally) and figure out what’s counterintuitive about the core message
  3. Communicate your message in a way that is unexpected to employees in a way that points out the counterintuitive aspect you’ve identified (the Heath brothers call this “breaking their guessing machine,” and by this they mean disrupting their current schema)
  4. Help them make sense of the unexpected/contradictory information to create a new, sensible body of knowledge of the topic

An Example of Surprise then Sense

Want an example of surprising someone with a counterintuitive message and then turning around to make sense of the surprise?

I can give you one drawn directly from the book. Somewhat unexpectedly, the book mentions that

“Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages” [Source: See note 6]

That seems counterintuitive, right? Isn’t effective communication based in common sense?

But no, the Heaths (sensibly) point out. If you get up in front of a training audience, and say something that’s entirely common sense, you’ll never grab their attention. They may nod their heads knowingly, but even then, you’re at a high risk of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other ear. And that’s if you’re lucky, because the fact of the matter is, they may never give that common sense statement of yours even a moment’s thought–after all, did you see that pretty bird outside the window?

Catching Attention Isn’t Enough: You Must Maintain that Attention, Too

Getting the employee’s attention at the beginning of training is good. It’s a necessary precondition for training.

But attention isn’t constant. Just because you have a person’s attention for a moment doesn’t mean you’ll keep it.

And, as a result, you can’t just rely on dropping some unexpected message on your employees during training, as if that’s going to do all of the work for you.

In short, once you’ve got their attention, you’ve got to work to keep their interest. What does the book suggest?

You can keep employees attention during training to keeping them aware of the gaps in their knowledge. For example, you can present a mystery to the employees and ask them to solve it. When they recognize they don’t know the information, that will renew their attention and drive them forward in an attempt to close that knowledge gap (the Heath brothers call this the “gap theory of curiosity”).

Here’s a reminder that the gap theory of curiosity is consistent with adult learning principles and the focus on active learning experiences.

Scenario-based learning can be a great way to make use of the gap theory of curiosity.

The gap theory of curiosity is also very consistent with the primary messages in Julie Dirksen’s wonderful book Design for How People Learn.

Training that Sticks Tip 3: Concreteness

The next tip is to present your training in concrete, not abstract, terms.

By concrete, he means things that people can:

  • See or visualize
  • Hear
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Otherwise examine with the senses

The tip to be concrete has two great benefits, according to the book. As the Heath brothers explain:

“Of the six traits of stickiness that we review in this book, concreteness is perhaps the easiest to embrace. It may also be the most effective of the traits.” [Source: See note 7]

To put that in concrete terms, that’s a lot of bang for the buck. You get a lot more “memorability” for something that’s easy to do. Win/win.

Fables as Examples of Concrete Communication

After having turned to proverbs as an example of simplicity, the book presents fables as an example of concreteness (you’ll notice both proverbs and fables use figurative and descriptive language).

For example, consider the two selections below, each drawn from the book. Which of the two versions of the same basic message is more memorable?

Version One:

“One hot summer day a fox was strolling through an orchard. He saw a bunch of grapes ripening high on a grape vine. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he said. Backing up a few paces, he took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing. Turning around again, he ran faster and jumped again. Still a miss. Again and again he jumped, until at last he gave up out of exhaustion. Walking away with his nose in the air, he said: “I am sure they are sour.” It is easy to despise what you can’t get.”

Version Two:

“Don’t be such a bitter jerk when you fail.”

[Sources: see note 8]

You may recognize the first version as Aesop’s famous fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” The second version is the Heath brothers’ attempt to convey the same message in a different manner.

What’s more memorable? The first, right?

And why? Partly because it’s phrased in concrete language. Consider the use of concrete terms: hot summer day; orchard; bunch of grapes; ripening; grape vine; quench my thirst; backing up a few paces; took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing; turning around; ran faster and jumped again; again and again he jumped; gave up in exhaustion; walking away; nose in air; sour.

At Convergence, we think one of the great benefits of training that incorporates visuals is that it’s very concrete and appeals to the senses. And not just to the senses, but to our sense of sight, because we’re very much visual creatures. The still image below, taken from a course on papermaking, is an example of that.


An example of visual training that appeals to the senses from an eLearning course on papermaking (of course, there’s also audio narration that accompanies this image).

The Velcro School of Training Stickiness

Why does being concrete make communication (and training) more memorable?

It’s because of how we process information and store it in our brains (and those schema we talked about earlier). And because, as we also mentioned earlier, when we encounter new information, we process it by trying to connect it with existing information.

The more potential points of connection that new information has, the more opportunities it has to connect to information that’s already in your brain. And using concrete communication aids in this.

In that sense, it’s like Velcro, with the concrete details of your communication acting as the tiny hooks. Or, as the Heaths explain nicely:

“Memory, then, is not like a single filing cabinet. It is more like Velcro. If you look at the two sides of Velcro material, you’ll see that one is covered with thousands of tiny hooks and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks get snagged inside the loops, and that’s what causes Velcro to seal.” [Source: see note 9]

This Velcro analogy is a nice concrete explanation of an otherwise abstract idea, don’t you think?

For a similar comparison, check out Julie Dirksen’s great book Design for How People Learn which suggests thinking of our brain as a closet with lots of stuff stored in it and lots of different connections running between the items. I’m not doing her book justice with this top-of-my-head description, but check out the book and you’ll see what I mean-it’s a point that’s “stuck” with me since I read her book some years ago.

Abstraction Is the Enemy of Concrete Communication

If concrete communication is good, it’s opposite-abstraction–is bad.

As the book explains, being able to think about something abstractly is something experts can do and novices can’t.

“Why do we slip so easily into abstraction? The reason is simple: because the difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly.” [Source: See note 10]

If you give that quote above a second thought, you’ll see why abstraction is out of place in training. When you’re training, you’re working with people who are closer to the novice end of the spectrum on that given topic. What’s the point of delivering training to people who are already experts on the topic–they already know the stuff, right? And so abstraction, a form of communication that’s helpful when experts communicate with experts, isn’t useful when you’re delivering training to people who aren’t experts.

Or, as the book puts it:

“Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. If you’ve go tot teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.” [Source: See note 11]

Jargon, Buzzwords, Acronyms: Avoid ’em When Possible

Specialists talk to each other in specialized language. That often includes things like buzzwords, jargon, and acronyms.

Savvy readers may notice that the use of jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms is an example of the “Curse of Knowledge” mentioned at the top of this article. These are not examples of concrete communication. They are shorthand that makes communication between experts easier.

So–you guessed it: don’t use buzzwords, jargon, acronym, and similar specialized language in training. Try to put the same ideas into everyday, concrete, descriptive terms instead. Or, if you determine the employees must learn to use the specialized language, be sure to clearly explain what they mean–don’t just start using them and assume folks will catch up with you.

One of the points in our How to Write Training Materials article is to avoid specialized language like this.

Focus on the Needs of The Trainees

Another way to present our training messages in a more concrete way, which in turn will make them more memorable and more likely to be used on the job, is to focus your message on the needs of the employees.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but many people jump into training development and training delivery without giving much thought to what information the employees want and need to do their job.

Remember to do your

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