Why Aren't Disaster Preparedness Messages Sticky?

Disaster Preparedness messages don't work because we don't understand how the 'curse of knowledge' effects 'the stickiness factor'.

Why can’t Emergency Managers succeed in  getting the message across to the public that they should be prepared for a disaster?  We all try very hard, and yet survey after survey shows that people just aren’t internalizing the message.  

I have an idea.  Perhaps the messages don’t work because NOT understanding the curse of knowledge stops us from using the stickiness factor.

Stay with me here and let me explain:

The stickiness factor came from thoughts on effective messaging that author Malcolm Gladwell described in The Tipping Point. This is how he explains it:

"But the hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.  Stickiness means that the message makes an impact.  You can’t get it out of your head. …Unless you remember what I tell you, why would you ever change your behavior or buy my product  or to go to see my movie?"

Sticky messages have such memorable content and such an impact they are vividly recalled with just a few clues. When you see or hear a sticky message, you just know the story behind it. Proverbs and urban legends are inherently sticky.  Advertising aspires to be sticky, entertainment can produce really sticky images. For example:

  • The early bird gets the worm.
  • Waking up in a tub of ice, with a note on your chest.
  • Snap! Crackle! Pop!
  • Make it so.

How to make a message sticky is detailed very well in the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. They took Gladwell’s thoughts (admitting it freely) and said sticky messages have six principles in common:  simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. Great book – make it part of your real or virtual bookshelf, and they did a nice interview on NPR.

The “curse of knowledge” concept came out of a game created by a PhD student (Elizabeth Newton) at Stanford back in the 90’s.  You have probably heard of it – the tappers and listeners game.

Very simply, she asked one group to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song and the other group listened and tried to guess what the song was. The tappers predicted how many songs the listeners would be able to guess and they thought about 50%. The success rate was really, really low – like 2.5%. The tappers were surprised the listeners couldn’t guess – it seemed pretty obvious to them! The tappers could hear the song complete with music and rhythm in their heads, but the listener only heard a disconnected set of dots and dashes.

Bottom line:  The curse of knowledge makes it almost impossible to create a sticky message.

Emergency managers create emergency preparedness messages to share what we know about disasters with the public.  We want those message to be sticky. But our own knowledge has ‘cursed’ us, because it is hard to imagine what it is like to NOT know what we know.  If we only create messages that resonate with us, we can’t just assume they are going to resonate with public.

What is it we want to tell the public?  Be prepared to withstand a disaster. 

What do we tell them?  Be informed. Make a Plan. Build a kit.

Not a real ‘sticky’ message, is it?

What do we really want to say?  Be prepared to help yourself because we can’t help everyone.

Now that’s a sticky message.