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Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die



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I wanted to make some comments on the book Made To Stick, as it contains many lessons that Muslims can apply to their da’wah work. The book is built on the SUCCESs checklist for evaluating ideas,

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotion
  • Stories

Before beginning, it’s important to make a distinction: The purpose of this point is not to use this book to somehow validate or prove what we know from Islam. Rather, it is quite the opposite. I would like to show how the principles this book has proven to be reliable and successful actually draw their roots from Islam. It’s a beneficial book because it is hard to see these ideals extracted and presented in an organized manner. It will insha’Allah increase our imaan by showing us another side of our universal deen, and give us some tips on how to better improve our daw’ah efforts and community organizations. They are also extremely useful as teaching and communication methods – something essential for all of us.
The book offers some examples of ‘sticky’ ideas, such as urban legends, or the golden rule (do unto others as you want others to do unto you). These are ideas that are simple, profound, and most importantly, they have staying power with their audience. Put it this way, think of the last 10 khutbah’s you heard, and how many of the things communicated have actually stuck with you, compared to everything that didn’t. Or compare it to a succinct piece of advice you received at some point in your life. I think you get the picture now.


In Islam we have narrations from the Sahabah saying basically to “speak to your audience at their level.” The height of eloquence is attained when a message can be delivered such that it is understood by all without ambiguity. People, often ‘experts’ or advanced academics, are often misled by their own knowledge and lose the ability to communicate with people at a basic level. In the book, this is referred to by the authors as the “curse of knowledge” (I don’t agree with that terminology but as I am reviewing the book I will refer to it as they did for now).

Simple often carries the connotation of dumbing things down, or making things too easy. This is not the case, simple means elegance and prioritization. Take Southwest Airlines for example, their company motto is to be THE lowest-fare airline. Period. It is not dumb, but it is simple. It is a philosophy by which the entire company can be governed, and business decisions made based on that principle. A simple message is core and compact.

What’s a simple message in Islam? Worship Allah alone without any partner. It is simple. It is profound. It is a principle that governs your entire life. It is eloquent. It sticks with you.


Part of the problem of communication is getting people’s attention. Sometimes it takes something unexpected to make people perk up. The most common way of getting attention is to break a pattern people are used to.

In the book they give a story of a Journalism teacher who tested his students by reeling off a list of facts: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloqium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be…”

He then asked them to write a lead for this story. All the students came up with the general leads that you can expect. Think in your own head for a minute, how would you approach presenting this topic?

After reading the leads from the students, the teacher set them aside, paused, and announced, “The lead to the story is, ‘There will be no school next Thursday.’

The reason that this worked was because he made the students commit to their schema of understanding Journalism first, then yanked the rug out from under their feet. Unexpected. Sticky.

Some other ways of accomplishing this are to start with a mystery, or create a ‘gap’ of knowledge and then answer it. Think about all the cliffhangers you see in TV News promos, or SportsCenter intros. Highlight something specific people don’t know. One of my teachers did this to me by confronting me with a question, “What does the ‘al‘ in alhamdu lillahi Rabb il-‘Alameen” stand for? So by creating a specific gap in my knowledge, he had my attention. I thought I knew what Fatihah meant, but he confronted me with something specific I did not know. He broke my schema of understanding. Then when he explained the different interpretations of it, he had my attention, and now alhamdulillah I remember what he said. This is an especially pertinent example because I know for a fact that I have read or listened to discussions on this very issue before, but it was not something I could recall as easily as I can from what I learned in this encounter.


An example of something concrete would be things along the lines of Aesop’s Fables. Think, the boy who cried wolf, or ‘sour grapes.’ If you have something you can imagine with your senses, it is concrete. A V8 engine is concrete, but”high-performance” is not. An example of this is the hadith,

“The example of a scholar (‘aalim) who teaches the people good and forgets himself is the of a lantern that provides light to people while burning itself out.”

It is visual, appealing to the senses, and it strikes an analogy that sticks. We find the use of many vivid parables in the Qur’an as well.

Concrete ideas have a direct correlation with being workable. When Boeing prepared to launch the 727 in the 60’s, they set a concrete goal: it must seat 131 passengers, and fly non stop from Miami to NYC and land on the Runway 4-22 at La Guardia (chosen because at the time it was too short for existing passenger jets). Contrast this with if they had simply said, “build the best passenger plane in the world.”

We have to utilize this in our approach to da’wah. We can’t just “make dawah” or hope to “spread knowledge.” These are just empty phrases that in reality don’t mean much. How do you go about recruiting volunteers to spread knowledge? What if you came up with an idea like, distributing 500 CD’s with a lecture on the blessings of seeking knowledge? Wouldn’t it be easier to accomplish because it is concrete, and easier to get people to help you out with? It is well defined and has a purpose that is visual. I am thoroughly convinced that its these types of empty slogans that have led to the failure of many organizations (both Islamic and otherwise). There is no solid goal in mind for people to achieve.

AlMaghrib classes are another good example. The goal is not to just get a bunch of people to sign up for a seminar, but you have a goal. We will not stop working until 200 people are signed up for our seminar. That’s a concrete goal.


What makes people believe ideas? First it is usually because or parents or friends believe something, or because of our personal experiences. For Muslims it is often our certainty in faith in Allah and what He has revealed. For others, it may be their religious beliefs as well. The point being, when you try to sell a new idea to someone, those are the forces one is up against.

Authorities are another obvious source of credibility. If the FDA approves a new medication, usually we somehow feel safer that it’s ok to take it. If Oprah likes a book, millions of people will go buy that book because they consider her to be a credible source. We trust their recommendations.

Details are a very powerful form of adding credibility. In 1986 Jonathan Shedler and Melvin Manis created an experiment to simulate a trial. Two sets of subjects playing the jurors were given a fictitious script of a trial to read regarding a Mrs. Johnson and her fitness as a mother. The two scripts had the same arguments, 8 for and 8 against, and were very balanced. The only difference in the two scripts was the level of detail. In one group, the 8 arguments in favor were given vivid details, and the arguments against were not. For the other group it was the opposite. An example being in one argument it said in her favor, “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.” In the ‘vivid’ one, it added, “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.”

After testing the arguments with and without the details to make sure they had the same perceived importance. The details were designed to be irrelevant to the judgment of Mrs. Johnson’s worthiness. They found that the details with the vivid arguments more directly impacted the judgment of the jurors.

The details boosted the credibility of the argument even though they should not have mattered. If I can mentally see the Darth Vader toothbrush, its easier to picture the boy diligently brushing his teeth in his bedroom, thus reinforcing that Mrs. Johnson is a good mother.


It is important to make a personal appeal to a person’s emotions. They must be given a reason to care. If the reaons are statistical or analytical, people tend to become less reactive because now they are thinking analytically rather than emotionally. It makes people care.


Benefits, stimulation, and inspiration are geared to generating action. Credible ideas make people believe, and emotional ideas make people care. Stories, make people act.

Stories are powerful because they provide the context missing from abstract prose. The velcro theory says that the more ‘hooks’ something has, the more it will stick. Stories can build emotion, historical background, and many other elements to give an idea context. This makes it stickier.

Is it any surprise then that 1/3 of the Quran is stories of the other civilizations and Prophets? Think about the story of Yusuf (as).

We relate unto you (Muhammad SAW) the best of stories through Our Revelations unto you, of this Quran. And before this (i.e. before the coming of Divine Inspiration to you), you were among those who knew nothing about it (the Quran). (12:3)


Indeed in their stories, there is a lesson for men of understanding. It (the Quran) is not a forged statement but a confirmation of the Allah’s existing Books [the Taurat (Torah), the Injeel (Gospel) and other Scriptures of Allah] and a detailed explanation of everything and a guide and a Mercy for the people who believe. (12:111)

Take another example of a successful story in our times. Jared, the Subway guy. The ad campaign featuring him losing weight by eating at Subway was significantly more successful than their previous “7 subs under 6 grams of fat” campaign. The story is concrete. It is credible (he took upon the diet on his own). It is unexpected – losing weight by actually eating fast food?


Some of this may seem really obvious. The SUCCESs checklist isn’t something that after reading it you are like oh wow I didn’t know that. We do know these things, but we haven’t brought them together in our heads. Take the story of Jared, it contained many elements of the checklist, but was still rejected initially by corporate marketing ‘experts’ at Subway.

I hope that you enjoyed reading this post. The book is really enjoyable to read, and it contains many valuable lessons, especially for those involved in dawah work.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at



  1. Amad

    March 31, 2007 at 3:15 PM

    This is a “WOW” post… almost something that Muhammad AlShareef would put together… 5 stars!

    Stories… reminds me of Sh. Waleed Basyouni… he loves to interject with stories, and it is those stories that really stick. Consider this review of Sh. Waleed’s AlMaghrib class… the review revolves mostly just stories, even though they did not represent half the class, let alone a bulk of it, and still the essence of the Islamic message came through shining and clear.
    jazakAllahkhair Omar.

  2. ِAbu Bakr

    March 31, 2007 at 4:36 PM

    assalaamu alaykum

    i really loved this post… one thing that really stuck out for me was the point about CONCRETE goals… this is a huge ingredient for successful projects (da’wah, ilmi, social, or otherwise) that we are too often missing…

    jazakallahu khayran for the great advices

  3. AnonyMouse

    March 31, 2007 at 10:41 PM

    Masha’Allah, great post!
    I love the stories bit… my dad does that a lot – in his duroos and khutbas, he throws in a lot of stories: Qur’anic, from the Hadeeth, from later in Islamic history… even personal anecdotes! People love them, too… :P

  4. Yasir Qadhi

    March 31, 2007 at 11:07 PM

    Ma sha Allah, great!! Make sure you continue to summarize such works as many of us wouldn’t be able to read them otheerwise.

  5. nuqtah

    April 1, 2007 at 3:18 AM

    awesome post.

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  10. Arif

    June 4, 2009 at 8:35 PM

    Masha’Allah – I had read this book many months earlier and it was refreshing to read this to recall the key concepts of the book supplemented with Islamic anecdotes. JazaakumAllahu Khayran!

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