Knowledge is power. So it’s important to know what it is, how it works, and its effectiveness, whether you’re leading a marketing team or whether you’re simply a consumer of information.
Mike Smith is Senior Vice President of Revenue Platforms and Operations for Hearst Magazines Digital Media and Senior Vice President of Advertising Platforms for Hearst’s Core Audience. (Can you imagine fitting that title on your business card?)
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.
“Familiarity wins over novelty when our conscious mental processing is distracted.” -Carmen Simon
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.
“Everything you have ever achieved in business is a reflection of how much your audiences remember you.” -Carmen Simon
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 paves the road from intention to execution.” -Carmen Simon
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.
“Having information about someone else ahead of time is a source of power.” -Carmen Simon
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?
Speaking Tip: Appeal to the senses to activate multiple parts of the brain and memory traces.
I’ve been blogging now for four years. I have done some things right, but many things wrong. If you are thinking of starting a blog, I shared my advice in an earlier post.
Someone recently asked me, “What surprised you most about getting this project going?” At first, I thought about the platform I used, about the wrong advice, about the misunderstanding I had about it all. As I reflected on it further, it was even more basic.
As I think about this list, I realize that these surprises are not only for bloggers but also for authors. See if they ring true for you:
10. How long it takes.
When I first started, oh my word! Everything took so long. I would labor over something. I thought I was a good writer but learned how far I had to go. The formatting, the images…the everything. It just took forever even with some help. Fast forward a few years and all that has changed.
Benefit: I have a greater appreciation for digital content creation and design.
9. How fast you can write and produce.
Sure, I may labor on something for longer than I should, but I don’t need to anymore. I can write posts quickly. What took forever is now routine, easy, and takes little time.
Benefit: I’m now a faster, better, clearer writer. This has been a big benefit at work.
8. How critics emerge.
Who ARE these people? Produce free content, designed to help people whether increasing their productivity in meetings or their creativity, and you want to argue about it? Out of nowhere, people will criticize what you say, what you do, or how it looks. Look closer and you may find that these people are unhappy, unsuccessful, and unfulfilled. Don’t ignore them, but write posts to help encourage them.
Benefit: I now handle critics better than I ever did.
“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.” -Malcolm X
Benefit: I learned to be self-motivated and find encouragement in the small things.
6. How disciplined you must be.
Everyone has a different process. Some people regularly get up and write a post. That’s not at all what I do. I may write numerous posts on a long international flight and then queue them up. Some of my posts that appear were written some time ago. This blog is not my main job and not my main focus, and I keep everything in perspective. But it has increased my discipline and focus in a way that I never imagined.
Benefit: No doubt about it. I am more productive, manage my time better, and am more efficient as the result of my blogging experience.
5. How content does not always equal success.
Some people will tell you, “Just keep writing. Eventually, it will all come together.” Maybe that’s true. On the other hand, get crystal clear on your goals. Is it to sell something? Generate traffic? Enhance your career? Use it as a stress outlet? Great content no longer is enough. Your site must be optimized for mobile. You need social media expertise. Your design and branding have to work. And the more like-minded people you are associated with, the better your chances are for success. Great writing is not enough. You need great promotion. And you need social proof.
Benefit: I have become an online networker, met more positive, productive people due to blogging than I ever could in person. Many I now call friends.
“Great writing isn’t enough. You need great promotion.” -Skip Prichard