How do you stay on people’s minds?
How do you craft your message in a way that stands out above the noise?
Since audiences forget most of what you communicate, how do you stay on their minds long enough to influence decisions?
I’ve read my share of books on speaking, on marketing, on crafting messages that will resonate. Dr. Carmen Simon’s new book, Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions, is one that I appreciate for its uniqueness. It’s not only about how to craft memorable messages but also about the science behind doing it.
Carmen Simon, PhD is a cognitive scientist who helps brands craft these memorable messages. Messages crafted based on how the brain works stay with us and influence our thinking long after we experience them. Her firm, Rexi Media, is a presentation design and training company based on her research.
Become Memorable With Distinction
Audiences forget up to 90%. What do most presenters get wrong?
First, let’s debunk a myth around the “90%.” It is not true that people only remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see…and up to 90% of what they say and do. There is no scientific study that provides evidence for such conveniently increasing stats (and what is the difference between “reading” and “seeing” anyway?).
When analyzing messages we share with a business audience, it is practical to consider a theory and formula that has been around for more than eight decades, called the forgetting curve. Simply put, according to the forgetting curve, we forget fast at first and slower later. After about 48 hours, people will forget most of our messages, particularly when they attend to them without the intent to remember, which is typical in business contexts. In academia, students attend to messages with the intent to retain (ideally). But in business, audiences are often in a state of partial attention, multitasking, and likely sleep-deprived. We are lucky if they remember anything at all. The practical advice for any business communicator is to ask, “What is my 10% message?” and consider the “10%” a metaphorical number, not a strict one because in business, it is difficult to attach a precise stat on how much people remember days or weeks later. We just know they retain very little and at random.
Regarding the question about what goes wrong for business presentations where memory is concerned: Most people worry about not remembering the past. In business, what we should be worried about is whether our audiences remember us in the future, because that’s where decisions happen. Let’s say you’re sharing content at a certain point in time, Point A. Your audiences are likely to make decisions about you (hire you, promote you, read your content, like it, etc.) at a future point, Point B. This point can be minutes, weeks, or months later. The key ingredient to business success is people remembering us in the future, at Point B, and making a decision in our favor.
Retrospective memory (remembering the past) is still useful. But it is prospective memory (remembering to act on a future intention) that keeps us in business. This means that at Point B, we must enable people not only to remember but also to create for them a memory that is strong enough to compel action.
A common mistake that business communicators make is not building in audiences’ minds strong associations between the content shared at Point A and actions they must take later, at Point B. Simply having a nice PowerPoint presentation or an ad with a “call to action” at Point A is not sufficient. Take for instance the ad that Colgate released at the Super Bowl this year. The ad reminded us that when we brush our teeth and leave the water running, we waste about 4 gallons of water, and that’s how much some people around the world have access to in one week. The main message was: “every drop counts” – indeed a humanitarian message. The strength of the ad is that the conditions at Point A and Point B are the same, in the sense that we saw the water running when we watched the commercial, and that’s what we see a few hours later, and each day after that in real life, when we brush our teeth. What the ad missed was instilling a stronger association between the message and what we’re supposed to do at Point B. At least a few shots in the video could have zoomed in a bit more on the action of turning the water off. And the main message should have been, “Every drop counts, turn the water off.” Too often, we leave it to the audience to derive the message and, unfortunately, people are too busy and too tired to extract messages and change their behavior. We often decide what to do next out of habit. And changing habits requires cognitive energy, which we may not have at the time when we need it. Think about it: When are you most likely to brush your teeth? Early in the morning and late at night. What’s the likelihood that you’re still tired in both those circumstances? Quite high. The ad relied too much on the emotion of the stat (“some people in the world do not have enough water”) and too little on solidifying the link between the message and the action needed at Point B.
Memory works on the concept of associations. Our brains take in the world through our senses and process that information in specialized regions (e.g., visual, auditory or motor cortices). These are considered primary sensory areas. However, our brains are capable of more complex mental functions than simply detecting basic sensory details, like color or pitch. We don’t just see a color or a contour or light. We see faces and cars and toasters and shoes. Each primary sensory system has its own association areas; the human brain also has higher order association areas, which are not linked to a particular sense but combine input from them to generate complex actions, like thinking and planning and producing language and deciding what to do next. Our association areas take up most of the cerebral cortex. Scientific studies are now revealing for instance that what differentiates creative people from non-creative people is greater activity in these association areas of the brain.
The key message is that the stronger the associations we enable between various inputs in the brain, the more likely the action. Sometimes people think that a strong, emotional message at Point A is sufficient and it’s not. By the time Point B comes around, the initial emotion can wear off. Think of the many times you may remember the humor from an ad, but have no idea what the ad was for. This is because the advertisers failed to establish a strong association between the content at Point A and the action at Point B.
Control What Your Audience Remembers
What steps should a presenter take to become intentional about what the audience remembers?
The first step is to be clear about what you want others to remember. This can be one of the easiest or hardest steps, depending on your messaging. Sometimes it can take weeks, months or even years to get to the essence of a message you want others to remember. And sometimes we forget our own messages. Take Abercrombie & Finch, for example. For a while, the message they wanted us to remember was about a highly sexualized, bare physique. Then they changed their mind and asked their models and sales reps to wear shirts. This shift in brand identity was not only costly but it moved away from an older (and original) set of core values, which were “personal freedom and rustic simplicity.” The switch to the concept of athletic and sexual was meant to appeal to young Americans, who were in perfect physical shape and had disposable income. Unfortunately, once this demographic started to face the worst job prospects in American history, the brand stopped thriving. A focus on nature and personal freedom would have been a more enduring message, one that is remembered even in tough economic times.
If we forget what’s important, how do we expect others to remember?
We often create messages in a rush. For a while, I used to collect photos of people in airplanes working on their PowerPoint presentations at the last minute. I stopped that when I noticed people doing the same in taxis, which are even more rushed. A solid message – one worthy of being remembered – takes incubation time and a lot of work. A pure “aha” moment at 30,000 feet or while stopped at the red light is rare. It’s fun to say that Newton came up with the concept of gravity when an apple fell on his head. Before meditating under an apple tree, he had spent many years studying Euclidean geometry, algebra, and inventing calculus. After the apple incident, he spent another ten years completing his theory of gravity. So all in all, he toiled for about twenty years to create the foundation of classical mechanics, and then stayed on people’s minds for centuries.
Every time I work with corporate clients to create messages that are memorable and actionable at Point B, I am noticing that a solid message takes time. Hardly ever do I walk into a meeting and ask, “What do you want others to remember?” and the answer comes out in a spontaneous way. It’s usually hours and sometimes weeks of refinement before we craft a message worthy of placing in other people’s minds. The key lesson for any business communicator who aspires to be memorable is to allow ideas to incubate, create a good message and only then apply other techniques to make it memorable. Being on someone’s memory is a privilege. Create responsibly.
How Cues Pave the Way to Action
Would you share an example of a cue paving the way to action?
Let’s use another example from this year’s Super Bowl ads. I am thinking of the Fitbit Blaze, a watch intended for those who want to get fit or stay fit in style. We see the watch at Point A, and it’s the same watch we will see at Point B, when we may be at a store or shop online. The ad included a nice variety of athletic and non-athletic events that can trigger the memory of the watch later on. Whether you’re waiting for someone and standing up, working out at a gym, putting a suitcase in an overhead bin, going to a show, or completing a project at work – all these activities get tracked and link to the desire of a fit body. Given that an improved image is a constant motivator – it does not get satiated and it does not go away – it constantly acts as a reminder, or a cue for action. This is what I meant earlier in terms of what we need at Point B: not just a memory, but a memory that invites action.
Tell us more about some of the latest research that impacted your recommendations.
Three years ago, I completed a research study in which I asked a simple question: How much content would an audience remember after they viewed a presentation with 20 slides? The study included 1,500 participants who viewed the presentation online and answered a test two days later. On average, people remembered 4 slides (each slide contained only one message). However, 500 people wrote back and said, “What presentation?” I was humbled to realize that even though I had involved healthy subjects, a third of them remembered nothing. A few emailed me with an apologetic tone. “I should have my head examined,” one said, not believing he could not remember anything at all.
At the same time I carried out this study, I kept noticing other things related to “PowerPoint amnesia.” For example, in the workshops I host in San Francisco on using brain science for memorable content, I include a simple exercise that goes like this: participants create a 2-minute presentation on a topic I assign (For example: “Sometimes the dragon wins”). The topic is meant to be generic enough so participants can adjust it to their fields and add their own spin to it. The main point of the assignment is for them to place in our minds 3 things we must remember from their presentation. What I am noticing is that even though each presentation has 3 points, when the presenter finishes talking, and I turn to the audience and ask, “What do you remember?” people have a hard time articulating all 3 points they just heard. Keep in mind that their memory is tested immediately after they’ve been exposed to information. Two days later, they would find it even harder to recollect each presentation.
The earlier study and these observations have inspired me to dig deeper into memory research – not the kind that tells us how to improve our own memory but rather the kind we can use to influence other people’s memory. In a more recent study, I’ve identified 15 variables we can use to impact what others remember, and the book is structured to address all of them. It’s important to keep in mind that memory is influenced by factors we cannot easily control in others. For example, the amount of sleep you get or alcohol or drugs you consume, or your mood, hormones, stress level – all these can impact how much you remember in a few days. There is a lot of truth to Lee Brice’s song, “Here’s to the nights we don’t remember.” From that perspective, if you have a late night out with your customers, reserve important content for daytime meetings. Conducting business over drinks is useless. In such a context, it’s better to focus on building relationships rather than building precise memories. At night, and with alcohol involved, focus, like Brice’s song suggests, on the “friends we won’t forget.”
Make Your Message Repeatable
I love the chapter on how to convince an audience to repeat your words. Would you highlight just one or two of the many ideas that influence this?
Even though we intuitively know that repetition is the mother of memory, the most prevalent mistakes I see in content creation are that 1) we shy away from saying the same things multiple times and 2) we create messages that are not easily repeatable at Point B.
I view hundreds of presentations each month: either when our firm re-creates them for different corporations or when I listen to others present during our workshops. I am always surprised at how little is repeated. People have the tendency to fill every single minute of an allotted segment with new information rather than repeat old information. I suspect that people’s egos feel better when they impress with novelty and abundance. So the first step in helping memory: don’t shy away from repetition. Use popular songs as inspiration. Think for example of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off: How many times does she use that phrase or a variation of it in the same song? Bill Withers says “I Know” 26 times in a row in “Ain’t No Sunshine” (the 1971 version); he bumps that to 113 times in the 1989 version. A few years ago, there was a study conducted to discover if repeating lyrics is a condition for a hit. The findings revealed that hit songs repeat lyrics up to a fifth more compared to songs that are lower in the charts. Sometimes songs are repetitively annoying, but as a result, they are also so darn hard to get out of our heads.
Another condition for repetition is simple syntax that is portable across various domains. Take famous movie lines, such as, “Say hello to my little friend” (Scarface), “You talking to me?” (Taxi Driver), “I’ll have what she’s having,” (When Harry Met Sally) – these phrases contain simple words that can be used in many contexts, beyond their original habitat. Compare that to a business message such as, “Using our products, you can integrate on-premise and cloud applications to increase IT flexibility and apply automation and governance across your entire cloud environment.” It will be hard to remember this statement in a few days, partly because it’s not simple syntax, and partly because, unless you work in that domain, you don’t have that many external cues to trigger the memory later, at Point B.
The Science of Retrieving Memories Through Stories
What makes an effective story?
To be memorable, an effective story must include perceptive, cognitive, and affective elements. Perceptive elements mean sensory impressions in context and actions across a timeline. Cognitive elements imply abstract concepts, facts, and meaning. And affective means the inclusion of emotion. Let’s consider a short example from Etro, the Italian fashion house that also produces perfume.
One of their perfumes is called Raving, and when advertising it, Etro marketers could have easily said, “Buy this new line of perfume called Raving, it smells amazing.” This would have been straight to the point but forgettable. Instead, they list the ingredients, using perceptive elements, to ignite the senses. We learn that the perfume contains cinnamon from Ceylon, ginger, peach, lemon, rose petals, sandalwood, amber and vanilla. And they tie the perfume to a story called Bottle Imp, by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. This is the story of Keawe, a poor native Hawaiian who buys a bottle from an elderly gentleman – not just any kind of bottle, but one that comes with an imp who grants any desire. There are some conditions for this purchase: if re-selling the bottle later, it must be sold for cheaper than it was purchased, or it will simply return to the seller; the bottle must be sold for coins, not paper money or check; and it must never be thrown or given away. If an owner of the bottle dies without selling it, that person’s soul goes to hell. The rest of the story follows Keawe’s trials and tribulations, and climaxes when the price of the bottle has dropped to 1 cent. Etro teases us in relation to the story and asks if we would, “resist the temptation, barely restrained by the cap, that whispers promises of desire fulfilled…” They also remind us that we don’t risk losing our soul, like in Stevenson’s story, but rather find a new one, a more audacious one, “rich in intense feelings and spicy fragrances that spark the flames of passion.”
An ad like this contains a good combination of perceptive, cognitive, and affective elements needed to make a story memorable. This combination is memorable because with it, we activate more parts of the brain, versus a business message, filled mainly with facts and abstracts, which activates just the language processing and comprehension areas of the brain.
Plant a Memory Flag
To bolster memory, you share the technique of “planting flags in the future.” Tell us more about how to do this effectively.
This technique emphasizes an important message in the book: the brain has evolved to be on fast-forward, and from that regard, it enjoys messages that are already placed in the future. This is why when we see titles like “The future of food”…“The future of technology”…“The future of us”…. we automatically get attracted to that content. The challenge I am posing is for anyone to imagine their messages a year from now and share ideas from that spot.
One advantage of “writing from the future” is that you will immediately notice you’re more creative. This is because when asked to go to the future, the brain goes to a more abstract place, and from there it is more open to possibilities and more accepting of the unconventional. There is a difference between imagining your content tomorrow (which is more concrete and confined) and imagining your content a year from now. A future perspective promotes divergent thinking and innovation.
After someone reads your book and/or works with you, what can they expect?
They should expect to become impossible to ignore…. when they take deliberate steps to impact what people remember and act on at Point B. It is beneficial when we shift our thinking and consider memory not from the angle of the past but from the angle of the future. From this regard, readers will be able to ask and answer, “What happens at Point B, when an audience must make a decision in my favor?” The answer contains three steps:
- Notice cues (therefore, prepare them with the same cues at Point A).
- Search memory (therefore place in their minds long-term memories associated with action)
- Act on an intention (therefore place in their minds associations between the action and a reward they will get).
The brain is constantly looking to maximize rewards and minimize cognitive energy and risks. This is why it is easier when we associate decisions we want others to make with habits they already have. For example, if we have content for Millennials, why create a computer-based application when most of their habits are linked to using mobile technology?
If YOU were in the audience, what would make YOU smile?
I really enjoy it when communicators give me the chance to participate in a communication artifact; they give me the “joy of getting it.” I like it when people make me look twice. For example, I still remember a campaign developed by Bayer to advertise the use of aspirin to cure a headache. To visualize the headache, they superimposed drawings of human heads on various objects. For example, the top part of a stapler showed a man’s face, upside down, and it made us experience what it would feel like to bang your head against the other metal part when the stapler would be used. Another ad showed a man’s face on the metal part of a hammer, and yet another had a face on a butcher’s knife that had just been used to cut onions on a wooden board. You can feel the splitting (ha!) headache when you participate in the interpretation of the image. This kind of engagement is definitely needed if we want to create strong memories.
Keep thinking about how to make things a bit harder to encode at Point A, easy to retrieve at Point B, and match the conditions between the two points. For example, in the Bayer ad, the stapler serves as a cue because it is something you may see at Point B to trigger the memory. And since there was participation and emotion at Point A, the memory is strong enough to last and invite action later, particularly since the reward is a desirable state: no splitting headache.
Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions