You have a vision for your school. You’ve worked hard on it. Your board is backing you enthusiastically and your executive are excited, even if a little nervous. Now the real test: selling the vision to your school community.
Persuading teachers, parents and students that your vision of the preferred future is worth pursuing is possibly the most important communication challenge you will face in your career. Your professional reputation, and even your job, can hinge on your ability to transform your big vision into simple ideas that your audience can remember and retell.
School Heads frequently share with the imageseven team that they are telling their school’s stories and trying to sell their vision, but no-one seems to be paying attention. Discouragement often follows and the vision is scaled back or discarded entirely. The plan that offered so much hope died even before it could take root, let alone bear fruit.
Assuming your vision is clear, achievable and is aligned with the values of your school, the challenge is first to change minds to enable a change in action. But if no-one is listening, the seed of your idea doesn’t even get a chance to germinate. You need to level up your communication.
You need to make your messages memorable and portable.
Your messages need to be remembered before your audience can change their actions to align with your vision. Your messages need to be portable (or retellable) so that others can amplify your message and encourage more people to work toward the vision, and so that they have tools to justify their changed behaviour to parents and colleagues.
Chip and Dan Heath suggest there are six principles to make an idea stick.
Simplicity. Strip an idea down to its core. Exclude all unnecessary detail and relentlessly prioritise. “Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are simple and profound.”
Finding and articulating the core of your idea is paramount. Just as no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no idea survives first contact with a noisy and unpredictable environment — and today, all environments are noisy and unpredictable. Even in the whole-of-school staff meeting you’ve been preparing for for weeks, teachers have phones vibrating in their pockets, a niggling knee pain from their run that morning and the mower on the oval is making it a little hard to hear you.
French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry offered a definition of engineering excellence that applies equally to your idea. “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” The equation: core + compact = simple.
Unexpectedness. Violate people’s expectations. They will pay attention to your message and you will hold their interest longer.
Humans are surprisingly good at filtering out consistent patterns. We tune out the hum of the air conditioner or, if you live near an airport, the regular and very loud jets. The most basic way to get someone’s attention is to break a pattern. Our brain is designed to pay attention to changes. Warning lights blink because they get our attention better than a light that is constantly on.
Surprise is a useful tool to get attention. Using a surprising fact, an unexpected word or sound, or visual aid that is ‘out of place’ are go-to tools for effective communicators. But surprise is not good at keeping attention.
Interest will keep attention. To avoid your surprise becoming gimmicky, follow it up by revealing an insight that ‘fixes’ the ‘gap’ that your surprise has just opened.
Concreteness. Clarity is critical to a message that needs to be memorable and portable. Abstraction makes it harder to understand and remember. Because it lacks specificity, it is also open to interpretation in ways you do not intend. Abstraction is the indulgence of a specialist. Concreteness is the tool of choice for an effective communicator and an essential element of a sticky idea. As a school Head, you are an expert in your field and it is very easy — even normal — to fall into abstraction. The difference between a beginner and an expert is the ability to think abstractly.
School vision statements, mission statements and strategies are commonly couched in language so ambiguous they become meaningless, let alone memorable. Concreteness creates a shared language understood by message senders and message receivers alike. Sticky ideas are full of concrete images.
Credibility. Your position as leader doesn’t mean your staff will automatically believe your idea. Sticky ideas must carry their own substantiation.
Humans will find credibility in the expected sources: family, personal experience and faith. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we can’t usually call on these authorities to support our idea, but we can employ some other credibility hacks.
Experts and celebrities are fertile sources of credibility. Experts have credibility because they have years of training and focused concentration on their subject. Celebrities are often ascribed authority because we trust the recommendations of people we aspire to be.
Think of the success of Oprah’s Book Club. The 70 books recommended in the first iteration of the Club sold over 55 million copies.
Statistics rarely add credibility because they are not usually meaningful in their own right. When used to illustrate a relationship they excel, because the relationship is usually more important than the number.
Finally, there is the testable credential. You can challenge your audience to test a claim, process or idea and allow them to ‘try before they buy’.
Emotions. To get your audience to care about your idea, they need to feel something. Feelings motivate people to act. So, it follows that if we want our audience to care about our idea, we must tap into things they care about. However, we can fall into the trap of seeking to appeal to the same emotion as every other school. Aim to differentiate your ideas or to find a different emotional association.
John Caples started a new school of advertising in 1925 with the advertisement headline: “They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!” Self-interest is a powerful emotional connection. What is in your idea for your audience? Be clear. Be brief. But use it sparingly.
Stories. Stories are the tool to inspire action. More specifically, the right stories lead people to act. Studies have shown that when we hear a story, we simulate it in our minds. There are no passive audiences when hearing a story.
Emergency workers and special forces tell each other stories of how events unfolded from their perspective as a way to debrief. You routinely see cricketers and golfers play their shots in their mind. They are using the power of a story to simulate the actions they will take next time they face a similar situation. Stories act like flight simulators for the brain.
Stories do double duty as simulators as well as the inspiration attributes we are more familiar with. Your school is a story-rich environment and to harness these stories, you simply need to note them down as they happen around you each day.
The ultimate test of your skill as a communicator of powerful ideas is not whether your stories are memorable and portable; it is whether you achieve your goals.
- Your big ideas will be more powerful if they are memorable and retellable.
- Your idea should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and a story.
- If your idea is worth telling others, it is worth the time to make it sticky.
 Caples, J and Hahn, F 1997, Tested Advertising Methods, 5th edn, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, United States.
 Gerrig, R 2019, Experiencing Narrative Worlds. Routledge, United States.
 Heath, C and Heath, D 2009, Made to Stick, Arrow Books, London.