I just finished reading ‘Switch’ by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a book about change. There are over 29 thousand business books about change on Amazon, but Switch is number one.
How did the Heath brothers get to the top of that pile?
I think that part of the answer is structure. The structure of Switch is beautiful, simple and very, very clever. And we can all use it.
The first structural decision Chip and Dan made when writing Switch was to employ the rule of three. For example, they say the way ‘to change things when change is hard’ is: 1) direct the rational mind, 2) motivate the emotional mind and, 3) shape the environment.
Beneath each part of the overarching three part structure sits a further three part structure, for example: directing the rational mind requires us to 1) find the bright spots, 2) script the critical moves and 3) point to the destination.
We have known that the rule of three works for a very long time; the three word latin phrase ‘omne trium perfectum’ means ‘everything that comes in threes is perfect’. (Wonder why it sounds better in latin?). We don’t know why the rule of three is so powerful. My favourite theory is that humans are pattern seekers and three is the simplest pattern.
Tony Blair famously used the rule of three to powerful effect. When we heard him say education for the second time, we knew for certain that he would say it a third time. Structured this way, his statement resonated much more powerfully than if he had simply said that his number one priority was education. But Blair also knew that his proclamation would have lost impact if he had repeated the word a fourth time.
Whatever the psychological underpinnings, one of the beauties of the rule of three is that it provides us with a pattern or a structure that helps us to remember. And remembering is really hard.
Here is the opening stanza from a favourite Billy Collins poem, entitled Forgetfulness:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
The heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one that you have never read, never
even heard of
I know exactly how Billy feels. Sometimes, as I have walked along my bookshelves, I have wished for a super-power, albeit a modest one. I have wished that I could remember everything that I have ever read (except that Lee Childs novel).
Because Chip and Dan Heath used the rule of three there is a good chance that I will remember a lot more of Switch than of, say, Child’s Killing Floor (I only remember that it was total bobbins).
And so the rule of three is part of what I love about Switch, but others use the rule of three. For example, Dan Pink, Al Gore’s former speech writer, uses it to structure both of his business bestsellers, Drive and To Sell is Human.
Chip and Dan go beyond the rule of three. For me what is really beautiful about Switch is the way that they employ a simple visual metaphor of a man riding an elephant to help us to see how the three elements of change work together.
According to Chip and Dan, the elephant rider is the rational mind that sits atop the strong, powerful and wilful elephant which represents the emotional mind. With this metaphor they make it easy for us to see, and to remember, that if we are to drive change we need the rider and the elephant to work together and we need to minimise the obstacles in their path.
When the sentences and paragraphs and chapters of Switch have faded from my memory, this visual metaphor will offer me a way to access their wisdom again, without going back to my bookshelf. Their message will stick.
The Heath brothers know exactly what they are doing when it comes to stickiness. Their previous book ‘Made to Stick’ was all about the secrets to sticky communications. In Switch we see them practising what they preached. And, unlike a magic trick, it’s clear that sticky communication doesn’t become less impressive when you know how it works.
If you would like your communications to be understood, remembered and acted upon you don’t have to write a book. Whether you are crafting a campaign, making a presentation or just writing an email, the rule of three and a visual metaphor can help.