PT Bookshelf

Book reviews on communication, parenting, agoraphobia, group happiness. What makes a good joke memorable? And why are half-baked ideas so popular?

By John Ruddy, Catherine New, Dawn Stanton, published January 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Made to Stick

By Chip Heath and Dan Heath

If nobody listens when you're trying to share important information, this book is for you. From teachers lecturing about mitosis to CEOs announcing new company rules, people depend on others getting the message. Some ideas endure and spread—consider Jared of Subway, Coca-Cola's logo, or credos like the Golden Rule. Then there are valuable ideas—like those found in most high-school classrooms—that are gone before you know it. What does a good joke have that makes it memorable? And why are so many half-baked ideas ("We only use 10 percent of our brain"), conspiracy theories (aliens), and urban legends (razors in apples) so popular?

Made to Stick is all about making your message memorable and compelling—or "sticky," a term from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. The authors describe several psychological hurdles that can prevent you from reaching your audience, and patently old guidelines are explained using relevant research—some of it Chip's own. For example, people donate more to charity after reading one person's sad story than if they read statistics of mass suffering, suggesting that messages are better when they're personal and anecdotal. Made to Stick may not reinvent the wheel, but it offers solid instructions, a selection of exercises, and plenty of vivid real-world examples. In short, it follows its own advice.

Six Steps to Sticky Messages:

  • Simplicity: Strip ideas to their essentials.
  • Unexpectedness: Use counterintuitive examples.
  • Concreteness: Include sensory information.
  • Credibility: Ideas must be testable by the user.
  • Emotions: Disgust, sympathy, resentment—they all work.
  • Stories: People love a good tale.

Searching for Mary Poppins

Edited by Susan Davis and Gina Hyams

Parenting is like sex: We're fascinated by what goes on behind closed doors. In this case, the drama is between mother and nanny. Sharing motherhood with another woman is slippery and complex. This collection of 24 smartly-written essays probes the emotional center of this relationship, and along the way touches on issues of race, class, and immigration. There is one thing missing here, however: the voices of the nannies themselves.

Wish I Could Be There

By Allen Shawn

Allen Shawn sometimes freezes with fear even with his "safety items"—a paper bag, a container of Xanax, and a bottle of ginger ale. Shawn is a self-described agoraphobic: He can be afraid of open spaces and closed spaces, and he sees potential danger where others don't. In this revealing memoir, he masterfully weaves reflections on his personal life—his father was the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn—with a look at the science behind his fears and the ways he's developed to cope with them.

Dancing in the Streets

By Barbara Ehrenreich

The orgy is up for rehabilitation. Love can and has existed among a group greater than two, argues Ehrenreich in this examination of the cultural role of revelry. Whether it takes the form of a festival or a carnival, singing, dancing, and feasting have a long overlooked place in human history. From the dancers depicted in cave art to the festivals of ancient Greece and Rome, ecstatic group activities served a vital role: to form and strengthen ties among non-related peoples. Ehrenreich warns that depression may result from denying ourselves the experience of collective joy.