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Gary Horton: Make your own news story that sticks

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: January 13, 2009 7:45 p.m.
Updated: January 14, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Razor blades hidden inside Halloween apples. Heart attack movie popcorn butter. Tina Fey spoofing Sarah Palin.

All three unnerve many. Others find Tina Fey quite charming. Fey preferences aside, these stories stick deep and have changed our beliefs and behaviors.

The thought of razors hidden inside Halloween goodies makes us cringe at gruesome visions of shredded lips and gums. "Hidden Halloween razors" is such a horrifying yet believable story that it haunts us every year ever since it first hit the press three decades ago.

But while the fear sticks, the original story was a hoax, and in all the years since, stories of contaminated treats turn out as hoaxes, usually perpetrated by kids on their own friends and family.

But the scare-the-bejebees-out-of-parents razor stories get us worked up, and today we see hospitals X-raying candy bags instead of patients and kids trick or treating at malls and churches instead of at their neighbors' place down the street.

There are tons of sticky notions - both true and false, changing our minds and behavior. Ten years ago saw tremendous hoopla over ultra-fattening movie theatre buttered popcorn. This one was true, and we remember it because advertisements were so visually alarming.

National health organizations ran a media campaign comparing a single bag of buttered popcorn to all the fat in a full day's gluttony of an eggs and ham and bacon breakfast, cheeseburger and fries lunch, and a giant steak and baked potato dinner.

One bag of popcorn equaled a mountain of greasy food that almost no one would ever eat. The disgusting image stuck, folks stopped buying popcorn and movie theaters all over the country hurried to replace their deadly butter with a healthier type.

Some folks still won't get near movie theatre popcorn butter, as all they can imagine is piles of fatty grease at the butter spigot.

The book "Built to Stick" uses stories like this to explain how some ideas get glued to our consciousness and change us, while others slip away into the millions of other images, ideas, advertisements inundating us daily.

What sticks and what doesn't goes a long way in forming our opinions and determining our behavior. The tricky thing is that, while a story may be true or false, it's the emotion behind the idea that makes it stick to our minds.

As we are what we eat, what we think is what we become. Best then to think carefully if we want to stay rational, positive and productive.

You're reading a newspaper right now, and newspapers live and die on sticky leads. Leads are the first lines in new stories, specially designed to communicate the condensed meat and intent while beguiling readers to go deeper and turn pages. A good lead is sticky in that it's memorably presented, often with emotional implications of the facts reported.

With an economy on the rocks and so much political history in the making, the news is ripe with both scary and inspirational leads that emotionally charge and change us for better or worse.

"Employees brace for a new round of pink slips as employers continue slashing jobs in the worst economy since the Great Depression."

The "Great Depression" makes this one scarier than tainted Halloween candy. It's surely more real. Could my job be the next on the chopping block? Could yours?

We're grabbed by the throat and put on edge. The frighteningly sticky lead changes our behavior - as perhaps tonight we'll eat in and save some extra money in the face of such uncertainty.

Soon local restaurants and suppliers feel the trickle-down themselves and lay off and close, proving the lead was right after all.

"Homeowners despair and walk away as houses turn into liabilities in California's ever deepening real estate crash."

Maybe I should be worry more and sleep less? Perhaps it's time for me to walk away, too?

I don't want to get left behind like some poor kid left standing in musical chairs - the only homeowner caught paying a mortgage as house values plunge even lower. And in our despair we forget the peace of mind that our house is our family's home and not a simple Insta-Teller gone bust.

But we can turn the table on the sticky stories of fear and anguish. We can write our own headlines and craft inspiring leads that motivate our own success.

Even though most news is bad, we can yet turn bad to good and make it stick for good in our lives.

"Kids win big during hard times as parents seize the opportunity to teach and demonstrate balance, frugality and wise financial budgeting."

The recession and '94 earthquake turned out to be one of the better things that happened to my kids during formative years. They got to see mom and dad struggle and adjust and make tough cuts to get us through.

We didn't hide the struggle. Money, it turned out, wasn't free, and everyone learned the value of a buck and the virtue of saving. We're all the better for it.

"Childhood literacy stages dramatic improvement as families turn off their TVs and return in droves to public libraries."

Why not take the trash out of your house and get back into reading? Reading is free, reading relaxes during stressful times and reading makes our kids and us smarter. And unlike scary headlines, we get to choose what we read.

Save 50 bucks, go back to basic cable or no cable at all - and smarten up. Reading is a recession winner!

While frightful avalanches of stories compete for our minds, we still get to choose what we take in and how we respond. Despite the scariness - and the stickiness of much of today's news, we can yet write our own headlines and turn news lemons into personal-success lemonade.

We just have to make our ideas stick better than the grim stuff saturating us from the media.

"Local business develops extraordinary success as owners and employees innovate together, remarkably overcoming recessionary pressures."

As for myself, I'm busy working to make this lead stick. What's your lead going to be?

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. "Full Speed to Port" appears Wednesdays in The Signal. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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