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Tripping Over the Truth: Interview with 'The Power of Moments' Authors

Lisa Arthur

Can you pinpoint the particular moments that have changed your life? Your career? Chip and Dan Heath, New York Times best-selling co-authors—and this year’s Relativity Fest guest speakers—dive into why certain moments can alter your life in their upcoming book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary ImpactIt’s not the moments you would expect.

The fraternal duo has written three additional books together. Having been inspired by Switch—a book exploring how to make lasting change—I was excited to sit down with Chip and Dan to glean their insights about the power moments can have.

Read excerpts from our conversation to find out how to recognize extraordinary moments in your everyday life.

Lisa: What inspired your new book?

Dan: You can probably cite 10 or 12 moments as the most important to defining where you end up, but it’s also possible to define moments on a much smaller scale. You’ll find there are certain moments that have disproportionate importance. And the question that led us to this book is "why?"

Give us some background on moments. How do you define a moment, and how can one brief moment have a profound impact on someone's life?

Dan: A defining moment is a short experience that is particularly meaningful and memorable. For any given time span, whether you're talking about the length of a life or a hotel visit, there are going to be certain moments that pop out of that experience. We're trying to analyze the traits of meaningful and memorable moments, so we can use them to create more.

Chip: For example, at DoubleTree hotels they give you a warm chocolate chip cookie when you check in. It's an extraordinary moment because it shouldn't be that different from checking in without the cookie, but I have this warm, affectionate feeling about DoubleTree because of that one moment. There are so many opportunities in the world to create a moment that matters, and we tend to miss them.

Why do you think people overlook these moments of opportunity?

Dan: We tend to think the way to improve an experience is to fix problems. Fixing problems doesn't make people happy or yield memorable moments. Instead it whelms people—it doesn't overwhelm or underwhelm, it whelms. The absence of a problem is not a memorable moment. For something to be memorable, it has to be what we call a peak. That's why something simple, like a warm cookie at check in, is comparatively rare. Thousands of people are fixing problems but never actually thinking about what moments are going to define an experience.

Before we dive into identifying these moments, I want to touch on the peak concept. It sounds similar to "bright spots," an approach you talk about in Switch. Was there influence in The Power of Moments from Switch?

Chip: The link is the psychology behind the two ideas. Our attention is drawn toward bad things that are happening rather than good things. We tend to ignore the bright spots because we're focused on the problems. Similarly, we often ignore the potential for creating peak moments because we're busy filling in potholes.

That really requires a pause and reset of how we're wired. How can people focus on the moments that matter?

Dan: You can learn to think in moments and recognize certain times in life that there are particularly important. We identify these in three categories: transitions, pits, and milestones.

An example of transitions is how little attention organizations pay to a new employee's first day. They often receive an awkward experience even though it’s an important transition. Natural moments like this deserve attention and we're failing to recognize them.

One of the other categories—pits—are emotional low points. It could range from learning a family member has a troubling medical diagnosis to missing an important flight. Great customer service operations are ready for these moments. Research suggests if you ask people about their favorite moment in a recent service experience, over a quarter of them are bad experiences that became a peak.

The third category is milestones. Organizations pay attention to milestones in tenure, but we're less accustomed to paying attention to milestones based on our work. Shouldn't a manager be celebrated not just for surviving at the firm for 10 years but also when their tenth direct report receives a promotion because of their mentoring?

Once you realize that moments have this disproportionate power, you can start to spot the ones that deserve more attention.

Do you have any examples from the legal world?

Chip: Great trial lawyers have a strong sense of moments. A lot of the most important moments are ones that are thoughtfully produced to create emotion on the part of the listeners.

Dan: "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit." The most famous trial of all time really hinged on a moment and it was a totally produced moment. If we want to spark a moment, it can be more powerful for them to discover the truth themselves, or trip over the truth. The demonstration in the O.J. Simpson trial allowed a kernel of doubt to manifest in the minds of the jurors.

Another example of tripping over the truth comes from a story told to us by a small business owner who started a retirement fund for his employees. They weren't utilizing the plan even though he offered to match their contributions. One day he called everybody into a conference room and walked in quietly with a mysterious looking bag. He unzipped the bag, turned it upside down, and a bunch of cash piled out onto the table. He said, "This is the amount of money you left on the table by not maxing out your 401k match. I'm going to pile all this money back into the bag, take it to the bank, and deposit it in my account. Next year at the same time, we're going to do this again. Is the money going to be in your pocket or mine?" He said there was a rush of enrollments in the 401k plan.

Tripping over the truth is about creating an 'aha!' moment that’s more powerful than logic. It's a way of dramatizing an insight.

There was a dramatization in Switch about a manufacturing organization. Can you tell us that story?

Chip: It's about a man who noticed the organization’s procurement system was ineffective and needed to get the attention of the leadership team.

He had a research assistant track down the different types of gloves the organization was ordering for their factories. He invited his colleagues into a conference room where he had 424 different pairs of gloves on the table. They looked at the price tags and realized they were paying four dollars for some and eleven dollars for others. After the demonstration, the leadership team identified that they needed to fix their procurement system. All of a sudden, a group of people who wouldn't normally be interested in operations were riveted by operations problems.

It seems that tripping over the truth goes hand in hand with storytelling. What are some elements around storytelling that can reframe a moment?

Chip: Researchers who look at jury trials are finding that evidence itself doesn't always matter in jury decision making because people can't remember all of it. If you tell a narrative that encapsulates the information, and your opponent doesn't, you're going to be ahead of the game because people are going to remember what your narrative highlights.

Dan: Stories have traits that make them sticky. They are concrete. They create scenes you can imagine and they include surprises and emotion. These are elements that predispose ideas to be remembered and acted upon. In the legal world, the story serves as a thru-line for all the individual points of evidence. In the absence of the story, it becomes disconnected bits of data.

Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, teaching courses on business strategy and organizations. 

Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports social entrepreneurs. At CASE, he founded the Change Academy, a program designed to boost the impact of social sector leaders.

Lisa was chief marketing officer at Relativity.

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