He’d just finished one drink when an attractive woman approached and asked if she could buy him another. He was surprised but flattered. Sure, he said. The woman walked to the bar and brought back two more drinks—one for her and one for him. He thanked her and took a sip. And that was the last thing he remembered.
Rather, that was the last thing he remembered until he woke up, disoriented, lying in a hotel bathtub, his body submerged in ice.
He looked around frantically, trying to figure out where he was and how he got there. Then he spotted the note:
DON’T MOVE. CALL 911.
A cell phone rested on a small table beside the bathtub. He picked it up and called 911, his fingers numb and clumsy from the ice. The operator seemed oddly familiar with his situation. She said, “Sir, I want you to reach behind you, slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?”
Anxious, he felt around behind him. Sure enough, there was a tube. The operator said, “Sir, don’t panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested. There’s a ring of organ thieves operating in this city, and they got to you. Paramedics are on their way. Don’t move until they arrive.”
You’ve just read one of the most successful urban legends of the past fifteen years. The first clue is the classic urban-legend opening: “A friend of a friend …” Have you ever noticed that our friends’ friends have much more interesting lives than our friends themselves?
You’ve probably heard the Kidney Heist tale before. There are hundreds of versions in circulation, and all of them share a core of three elements: (1) the drugged drink, (2) the ice-filled bathtub, and (3) the kidney-theft punch line. One version features a married man who receives the drugged drink from a prostitute he has invited to his room in Las Vegas. It’s a morality play with kidneys.
Imagine that you closed the book right now, took an hourlong break, then called a friend and told the story, without rereading it. Chances are you could tell it almost perfectly. You might forget that the traveler was in Atlantic City for “an important meeting with clients”—who cares about that? But you’d remember all the important stuff.
The Kidney Heist is a story that sticks. We understand it, we remember it, and we can retell it later. And if we believe it’s true, it might change our behavior permanently—at least in terms of accepting drinks from attractive strangers.
Contrast the Kidney Heist story with this passage, drawn from a paper distributed by a nonprofit organization. “Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modeled, drawing on existing practice,” it begins, going on to argue that “[a] factor constraining the flow of resources to CCIs is that funders must often resort to targeting or categorical requirements in grant making to ensure accountability.” Imagine that you closed the book right now and took an hourlong break. In fact, don’t even take a break; just call up a friend and retell that passage without rereading it. Good luck.
Is this a fair comparison—an urban legend to a cherry-picked bad passage? Of course not. But here’s where things get interesting: Think of our two examples as two poles on a spectrum of memorability. Which sounds closer to the communications you encounter at work? If you’re like most people, your workplace gravitates toward the nonprofit pole as though it were the North Star.
Maybe this is perfectly natural; some ideas are inherently interesting and some are inherently uninteresting. A gang of organ thieves—inherently interesting! Nonprofit financial strategy—inherently uninteresting! It’s the nature versus nurture debate applied to ideas: Are ideas born interesting or made interesting? Well, this is a nurture book. So how do we nurture our ideas so they’ll succeed in the world?