This is an article by Dr. Carmen Simon (formerly Taran) on how to apply the latest research on human cognition to boost the effectiveness of your presentations.
Dr. Simon is a cognitive scientist, a leader in the virtual presentation movement, and an internationally renowned public speaker. Dr. Simon is a co-founder of Rexi Media, a world-wide presentation consulting firm.
Last month, we ran a poll asking visitors, “What would you improve about yourself by 50%? Your looks, athletic ability, or memory?” Out of 243 participants, 36% chose memory. Looks and athletic ability scored 34% and 30% respectively.
The results intrigued me because given the choice between the three concepts – memory, looks, and athleticism – participants could not decide which one is a priority. They treated them with similar respect.
I have studied memory for the past decade and these results may have a subtle and profound meaning: given the choice for improvement, we value memory almost as much as our appearance or ability to move. These concepts define us, they impact our self-esteem, they give us a sense of individuality and freedom… and I am glad memory is bundled within this continuum.
In all my past research on memory, I have noticed another common thread: people are humbled by memory weaknesses. And as business professionals, we recognize that if we wish for better memory, our audiences are no better than we are: they are bound to forget what we tell them. For instance, research shows that people forget 90% of what we communicate to them after two days.
So we ask the question: if people remember on average only 10% of what we tell them, how do we make sure it is the right 10%?
This blog includes three techniques to influence the 10% of remembered information. I start with the premise that attention paves the way to memory, so it’s important to get people’s attention first before you wonder how to make content memorable.
1. Degrade the quality of important content. Traditionally, we’ve been taught that everything we communicate must be as clear as possible. But that’s not always the best way to get people’s attention.
Look around you right now. It’s likely that you see clear messages: book titles on your desk, a co-worker’s name on a cubicle wall, an ad message on TV, or the sign of a restaurant across the street. Everything is loud and clear. And that’s the catch: when everything screams for your attention, not much captures it for a sustained period.
Figure 1. Degraded words can be memorable because they draw extra attention
To get extra attention, you can apply the opposite technique: make important things hard to see. In a study where words were made more difficult to read (see Figure 1), those words were remembered more often compared to clear words, and recalled equally well when compared to sounds or pictures. This may be because people focused on those words more intently.
Figure 2. Example of faded words that invite further cognitive processing
Imagine this technique in presentation design. Ask the question: “where would I like the audience to look?” Then make those areas require more cognitive effort to process. In the slide below used in a presentation, the presenter wanted to make sure people really read the list of words, so she intentionally faded them out. In other words, she “made you look.”
This is a technique that, when used sparingly, awards you extra attention.
2. Provide a combination of recognition and surprise. One way to get attention and re-energize the brain is to break a pattern people have learned to expect.
We habituate to certain stimuli very quickly. In presentations that use PowerPoint for instance, we estimate that after 5 slides of bullet points, the next slide is likely to have bullet points. So we turn away. When you break a pattern that your viewers or listeners have learned to expect, you get extra attention, therefore a higher chance of recall.
In the example below, the expected phrases for the frequent PowerPoint user would be “Click to add title” and “Click to add text”. When the expectation is broken, it invites extra processing. By adding the element of surprise, you’re also giving your audience “the joy of getting it,” and enabling them to get closer to the information instead of scanning it.
Figure 3. A combination of recognition and surprise secures attention and recall
Predictability is often the reason content does not get attention. From an evolutionary standpoint, if we “think” we know what happens next (and everything is safe), we are better off switching attention to something else. So before your next presentation, ask yourself: “In what ways am I becoming too predictable?” Establish a baseline of sameness and a pattern, then break it. You will be awarded with attention.
3. Human memory works more efficiently when we recognize familiar chunks. In other words, we encode information more easily into our long-term memory that is similar to the information already stored there.
In the examples below, the presenter was speaking to a group from the airline industry. She knew the audience recognized the 3 chunks related to plane, pilot, and crew. So she divided her new content into similar chunks, whose purpose matched the initial 3 the audience recognized.
Figure 4. Dividing your content into chunks your audience recognizes eases cognitive processing
We have information in long-term memory that pertains to our interests, and it is easier to learn new information that is in line with these interests, and that we can relate to the old information. For your next presentation, ask this: “what does my audience already know and how can I tie the new to the old knowledge?”
In summary, we all know the typical person in your audience is multi-tasking, distracted, and maybe even exhausted. Grabbing their attention is the first step in getting them to remember. Surprise them by changing things up – making them work to see the content or breaking a regular pattern – focusing their attention on what you are presenting. Once you have them, give them your message organized in a familiar pattern – a pattern second nature to them – to strengthen long-term recall.