How to Make It Sticky: 6 Examples from The Great Courses

Sticky = understandable, memorable, and effective in changing thought or behavior.” ~Chip & Dan Heath

A dark-haired, emerald-eyed, voluptuous woman shimmies past you.

brightOrangeMinidress   She is wearing a bright orange mini-dress that barely reaches her hips, and a matching, fringed scarf wrapped once around her long neck. It drapes to her knees.

A man in a white, three-piece suit puts a record on a turntable you hadn’t noticed before. You hear the scratch of the needle and then the smooth opening notes of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. The man reaches for the woman, and they began to dance, hands touching but bodies apart.

You might think this is a scene from a nightclub. But no, this is a moment in a survey class on U.S. history, and the professor and his wife are demonstrating the concept of “cool” as it permeated American culture. It is a lesson the students present that day never forgot.

Why not? Because it surprised them and made an abstract idea concrete.

These are two principles of the concept of “stickiness,” explained by Chip and Dan Heath in their essential guide to making content memorable, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

I’ve mentioned their acronym “SUCCESs” in previous posts, because it is one of the best guides for crafting powerful courses. In this post, I want to direct your attention to 6 courses that have used these techniques, sometimes in combination, to capture the imagination and devotion of their students.

I’ll unpack the acronym briefly, as they do in the book’s reference guide.

  • Simple: “Find the core. Determine the single most important thing.”
  • Unexpected: “Get attention. Surprise.”
  • Concrete: “Help people understand and remember.”
  • Credible: “Help people believe.”
  • Emotional: “Make people care.”
  • Stories: “Get people to act. Stories as stimulation. Stories as inspiration.”

Here are a few examples from The Great Courses to demonstrate how the concepts can be applied.


In the opening of Physiology and Fitness, international fitness instructor Dean Hodgkin knew that viewers were expecting to sit and watch. Maybe with a bowl of popcorn in their hands.

So he did the last thing they expected, especially as the very first thing in the lesson. He told them to stand up. He then explained how many muscles they had used to accomplish that simple action.

Next he told them to sit down, and again explained what muscles they had used. He had put the one most important thing from the core of the course—that our fitness is connected to our physiology—into play immediately. The net result? We cared. We were hooked. We paid attention.


When The Teaching Company produced The Everyday Guide to Wine with Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, we faced a challenge. It was a departure from the academic courses we were known for, and the audience didn’t know that the credentials for becoming a Master of Wine were, in some regards, more rigorous than getting a doctoral degree. We had to establish her credibility as an expert immediately.

To pass the Master of Wine exam, you must be able to taste 40 types of wine, and identify the grape, region, and year. We took advantage of that remarkable feat by opening the course with a zoom into a table holding 40 glasses of 40 kinds of wine.

Simonetti-Bryan then picked one up at random and, without having known what it would be ahead of time, fully identified it. At that moment, we believed—we knew—that she would be an exceptional guide on this wine journey.


Art expert Diana McDonald’s area of specialty is animal symbolism in ancient art, particularly how certain symbols show up worldwide. When you’re looking at static images instead of the actual art, however, it can be challenging—especially online—to impress the viewer with how striking these images are in real life.

In 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World, she solved this challenge when lecturing on snake symbolism. She picked up a fat, four-foot long snake and wrapped it around her neck as she explained what the imagery meant.

Were we surprised? Heck yes. And we never looked at snakes on a pot shard or stele the same way again.


I have mentioned Stephen Ressler in previous blogs, and I’m going to do so again because he is absolutely the best example of a teacher making the abstract concrete.

Who would have thought that Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity—essentially a course on engineering—would have 111 reviews, and every one of them a 5-star rating?

Why is that? It’s because he makes stuff. And then he connects what he’s making to what he’s teaching, whether it’s how an arch holds up (and not just why that piece in the middle is critical, but how you get it there) or how a bridge can span a gorge.  To steal a term from Stranger in a Strange Land, you grok it because he shows us how it works.

He makes you gasp with amazement throughout the course. And that in itself is darn amazing.


Another unexpected use of the sticky principles comes in the opening of Mark Whittle’s Cosmology: The History and Nature of Our Universe. If you’re a science buff, you will likely venture into a course like this because you’re already interested. But if you’re a little sketchy on science, you need a stronger hook.

Whittle provides it by using poetic language to describe the beginning of the universe. He builds a picture of what we cannot see, and makes us yearn to see it. He moves us with his descriptions of cosmic matter. The stars become more than a blend of elements; they become part of us.

It’s a complicated subject and challenging course. I’ve watched it at least a dozen times because I worked on it with him, and I’ve understood it a bit more each time. But from the start, I wanted to understand, because of the way Whittle made me see that the universe is poetry.


The Heath brothers focus their use of “stories” on ways that the narrative can inspire people to action.

I think that relevant story-telling provides not only inspiration, but also identification with the subject matter. It humanizes the subject matter, whether it’s science, art, or math. By humanizing the topic, we care about it, we become more engaged, and we see its relevance to our lives.

Professor John Hale is a master of storytelling, and I could pick any of his courses as an example. I’ll use The Greek and Persian Wars, because he treats each lecture as a story within itself as well one tied to all the other narratives in the course.

Around the time this came out, so did the movie 300, about the Spartans’ battle against King Xerxes. Even in technicolor, the movie didn’t come close to having the emotion, inspiration, and suspense that Hale’s storytelling does.

Besides using sticky techniques, all these courses have in common that the teachers imagined what it is like to not have the knowledge they were teaching.

If you grasp beginner’s mind, throw in one or two elements of the SUCCESs paradigm, and are willing to be bold, you will craft lessons that resonate for years.

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Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course. 

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

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