Making Your Museum ‘Talkable’ – SUCCESs is the Key to Success

Creating a ‘talkable’ museum is vital to to attracting new visitors to your museum. And two brothers – Chip and Dan Heath – have identified the 6 core principles of talkability.  

Two brothers - Chip and Dan Heath - have identified the 6 core principles of talkability.

Two brothers – Chip and Dan Heath – have identified the 6 core principles of talkability.

A few years ago, I read a book that was a revelation.

It was written by 2 brothers – a Stanford University Professor and a business education consultant – rather unpromisingly named ‘Chip and Dan’ Heath.

The book was called ‘Made to Stick’ and examined why some ideas ‘stuck’ and others didn’t. They wanted to create a guide to communicating ideas in a way that made them sticky – not only memorable and understood, but opinion and behaviour changing.



Let me give you an example. What’s the only man-made structure you can see from space? Yup, the Great Wall of China – we all know that one.

Apart from the fact that it isn’t true. You can’t see any man-made structures from space. So why has this idea spread while other more worthy (and more truthful) ideas haven’t?

The Heath’s have come up with their own acronym for ensuring ideas are sticky – SUCCESs. Messages need to be Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories.

I don’t think this is the whole story, and I’ll be introducing you to some further thoughts in future articles, but it’s a great place to start on your journey to making your attraction’s experience something people will remember, enjoy and share.

Anyway, you’ll be wanting me to explain those key points in a little more detail so here we go:


Simplicity is at the core of ‘sticky’ communication because, as we’ve discussed before, we can learn and remember only so much information at once. Cramming doesn’t work.

The challenge for you is that making a message simple is rather complicated. You’re aiming to create something both simple and profound – like a well known proverb.

For historic attractions, I think this ‘simplicity’ can be expressed in 2 ways.

First you need to express the core appeal of your attraction to your target audience in a very simple way if you’re going to maximise your visitor numbers. All great brands boil down to simple, but profound, statements that sum up what they’re here for. You need to do the same (and I’ll post an article on this subject soon to give you a hand.)

Secondly, once visitors are there, you need to communicate your messages in a simple way. That’s not to say that you can’t communicate complex stories or concepts – it just means that you need to build up that complexity through layers of simplicity, like all good teachers do.


I made the point in my article on how the memory works that people need to ‘record’ information before they can remember it. If you want them to ‘record’ your interpretation, you need them to be paying attention to it in the first place.

By doing something unexpected, you can grab your visitors’ attention, but only if that unexpectedness is relevant to your core message (otherwise you’re being unexpected for the sake of unexpectedness).

But attracting people’s attention is not enough – you need to maintain their interest. How do you do this? You create knowledge gaps in their heads and don’t fill those gaps until you’ve fully communicated your message. In fact, I think I’ve just created one – don’t worry, I’ll be writing about this soon.


We remember pictures better than words, and words that conjure up images better than words that describe abstract concepts. It’s believed the reason for this is that we have a ‘visual’ memory and a ‘verbal’ memory, so words that are relevant to both get stored in 2 places rather than 1. Hence, we’re more likely to remember them.

Think of one of Aesop’s fables – perhaps the tortoise and the hare? It communicates a very abstract concept (‘slow but steady wins the race’) in a very concrete way.


But beware the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ – it’s this that leads us to communicate messages in an abstract way to demonstrate our grasp of a subject. But we’re not communicating our message to our peer group who have a deep understanding of it, but to visitors who perhaps only have a passing interest in and knowledge of what we have to say.


People believe what they perceive to be ‘authority sources.’ If you’re trying to communicate a message on which your attraction will be judged an authority source, then you don’t have a problem.

If not, you’re going to have to use techniques to achieve this credibility amongst your visitors by other means otherwise they’ll simply dismiss what you have to say.

The power of a few, carefully sprinkled details, vividly expressed, can come to your aid in this scenario.


This is something that any good ad man will tell you – if you want to sell something, make an appeal to the emotional rather than to the rational, because if people made all their purchases on a rational basis, they’d make a lot less purchases.

But how do you make a message emotional?

You think about which emotions the stories of your attraction can stir and you focus on making your audience feel rather than think.  You talk about people, not abstractions. You make your message personal to them by relating it to something they care about, appeal to their self interest and/or appeal to their higher principles.

This is how charities work. And studying how they communicate will help you, especially if your attraction relies on voluntary donations.


Stories have impact because they meet all the other criteria of the Heath’s ‘stickiness’ theory – they’re simple (well the most memorable ones are), they maintain our interest, they’re concrete, they’re credible (if told in the right way) and they make an emotional appeal by connecting us with individuals

There’s also evidence to prove that when we hear a good story, we don’t just visualise it, we actually simulate it in our heads, meaning that there’s a much greater chance of it anchoring in our brain and being recalled later.

I think that you can use these principles to make your own experiences more engaging, more memorable and more inspiring – to help people to learn history’s lessons but also to create experiences people are prepared to pay/donate more for and will tell their friends about.

If you agree, rest assured that I’ll be going into more detail on each of the SUCCESs points in future articles.

A Little Bit About the Theory of Schemas

To make your museum experience more memorable, you need to understand the concept of schemas. It’s a little bit like having a very large collection of DVDs. Let me explain.

Your memory is the filing cabinet. Your schemas are the DVDs, Simple.

Your memory is the filing cabinet. Your schemas are the DVDs, Simple.

I know, I know – I promised you a couple of posts about how to make the content of your interpretation more memorable and now I’m digressing into something called ‘schemas.’

But believe me, if you’re not familiar with the concept of schemas (and even if you are, I’d suggest you read on as I think I may introduce you to one idea you’re not familiar with) it makes some of the ideas I’m going to introduce to you later much more, well, memorable.

A schema is a ‘concept’ that’s lodged into your memory and gets accessed and replayed when you’re thinking about that concept. So if I say ‘castle’ to you, you visualize a stone building with grey towers, keep, battlements, moat, drawbridge’ etc. Perhaps you even remember castles you’ve been to and relive snippets of those experiences in your head.

In fact, a good analogy for schemas is a little DVD, stored away in one of your mental filing cabinets, that you access when you need it.

Thinking about how young children learn helps you to understand how schemas work. I remember when my eldest boy was very young I used to be amazed at how he could see a picture of, say, a real elephant on the TV and then a basic illustration of one in one of his Maisie books and recognise them as the same thing. That’s because his brain was using schemas. Elephant = grey, 4 legs, trunk, big ears.

Now imagine your brain as a collection of filing cabinets, stuffed with these schema ‘DVDs’, filed together into categories, with related categories filed close to each other.

Now think about how people learn something new. They have to file it somewhere to remember it. If it’s related to one of the areas they often go to for their ‘DVDs’, they’ll store it in there. And they’re more likely to remember where they put it – they’re in that filing cabinet all the time.

If it’s not related to one of those areas, they don’t know where to put it. They put it down for filing ‘later’ (and then forget all about it) or throw it into an empty drawer. Problem is, they may never open that drawer again and may forget they’ve filed a DVD in there.

What precisely am I trying to explain via this analogy? Well, if you can anchor the information you’re trying to get across to existing knowledge, or schemas, then your visitors are more likely to remember it. I means they’ll be filing it alongside other, related DVDs. Even better if you can anchor it to things they’re interested in – the equivalent of them filing it in a cabinet they’re getting DVDs out from all the time.

Going back to my son, when he asked about a new concept, the only way I had to explain it to him was by using the knowledge he already had – his existing schemas.

What’s a leopard, Daddy?’

‘Well, it’s like a lion without a mane and with black spots.’

I’ve used his ‘lion’ schema to explain the concept of a leopard in a way he’ll remember it. The 2 concepts are now filed side by side.

But that’s not the only interesting things about schemas.

If you introduce something that conflicts with someone’s existing schema in a credible way, they’ll talk about it.

Imagine you know me and then the next time we meet I’ve dyed my hair red. Your ‘Ben’ schema has me ‘recorded’ with blonde hair (not much of it left, mind). The red hair conflicts with your schema. And if you know people that know me too, you’re going to tell them:

‘Have you seen Ben recently? Did you know he’s dyed his hair red?’

So you can leverage schemas not only to make the information you convey more memorable, but also to get people talking about your attraction. And word of mouth leads to more visitors.

Now can you see why I wanted to explain them to you?