“What would you improve about yourself by 50%? Your looks, athletic ability, or memory?” I once conducted this poll in partnership with Poll Everywhere and 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 variables – memory, looks, and athleticism – participants could not decide which one is a priority. They treated them with similar respect, memory being slightly higher in appreciation than athletic skills.
I have researched 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 most of what we tell them. So what can we do to stay on people's minds?
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 everything captures it.
Degraded words can be memorable because they draw extra attention
To get extra attention, try the opposite: make important things hard to see. In a study where words were made more difficult to read, 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.
Imagine this technique in content design. Ask the question: “where would I like the audience to look?” Then make those areas require more cognitive effort to process. Obviously, the text image should not be so difficult to discern, like a vintage floral wall paper with washed out text. The point is to make the object just a little harder to process.
Faded content, when used sparingly, awards you extra attention.
Humans habituate very quickly. When viewing PowerPoint presentations for instance, we estimate that after a few slides of bullet points, the next slide is likely to have bullet points. So we turn away because we can predict what happens next and the brain is future-thirsty. 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.
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.
Offer Something Familiar
People often believe that novelty will capture an audience’s attention and stay on their minds longer. However, human memory works more efficiently when we recognize familiar chunks. We tend to encode information more easily into our long-term memory when it is similar to information already stored there. In the examples below, the presenter was speaking to a group from the airline industry. She knew the audience recognized three chunks related to plane, pilot, and crew. So, she divided her new content into three similar chunks, whose function matched what the audience found familiar.
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 often 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.