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The Neuroscience of Memory

We have all heard that statistic that people remember just five percent or less of what they hear in presentations. When you think about how much information we are inundated with every day, that isn’t surprising. I think five percent might actually be optimistic!

So what can we do to help people remember what we say, or at least recall key ideas or concepts that we present to them, or actions that we ask them to take? 

If I asked you to think of the best presentation you saw in the last few years –whether it was business-related or personal– your answer would probably be the presentation that had the most hallmarks of memorability. 

But what makes something memorable?

Just as with cultivating habits, we can find some guidance in neuroscience or the study of the structure and function of the human brain. 

Once we understand how the brain processes information and what it needs to retain it, we can use this knowledge to create and deliver our own presentations that will rise to the top of our audience members’ “best” list. 

The importance of memory

Memory is at the root of all decision-making. If you think back to all of the decisions you’ve made in the past few days –big or small, important or trivial— you’ll notice that all of them will have been informed by what you remembered at the time you made the decision. There are known and categorized heuristics and biases, or cognitive shortcuts, that our brains use to make decisions, and a whole bunch of them –the availability heuristic and its associated biases– base decisions on the things that we can most easily bring to mind in that moment. 

But how do we create that memorability? 

The formation of memory

One of the reasons people forget is because a memory was not formed in the first place. This is often because they aren’t paying attention. 

We’ve all been there, sitting at a conference and realizing that we tuned out ten minutes ago and have no idea what’s going on. Of course we aren’t going to remember what was relayed during that time; we weren’t paying attention in the first place!

So how do we get people to pay attention when we take the floor? 

The first step is in understanding why the brain stops paying attention. Typically, the brain stops paying attention when it has habituated a stimulus, or when a stimulus does not change much and has become predictable.

In order to combat habituation, we need to add variety to a stimulus, or keep our audience members’ brains “on their toes”, so to speak. 

One example of adding variety to a stimulus is to pepper a serious presentation with a bit of humour. As soon as the brain is allowed to detect a pattern of information translation, that pattern is broken by the humour. This makes it harder for the brain to habituate, and “shut off”. 

Another way to combat habituation is to use a communication tool that research has proven is more memorable: stories. Add a story to your presentation and the odds are overwhelming that the story will be what people will remember when they leave — not the facts, analysis and statistics that you quoted to them.

Think about how to craft your slides or any visual aids you use in order to combat habituation. Going from bland text slides to slides with colourful, compelling imagery to video clips or slides that include motion, for example, will create a sense of novelty with each slide. You can use juxtaposition to create memorability in the slides that contain the most important points you are trying to get across.

Facilitating Recall

Forming memories in the minds of your audience members isn’t the end of the story. The next challenge is in preventing those memories from being crowded out by the thousands of other memories formed in your audience members’ brains around the same time. The creation of a memory is fruitless if that memory cannot be found among all the other memories that have been formed in the brain, and brought to front of mind. 

So, once you have facilitated the creation of memories, the next step is to add in elements that will help your audience recall those memories.  

There are several tools that can be used to assist in memory recall. 

One such tool is a cue, or an association that you can create for your points that will help with recall. For example, if you associate your content with a specific object, like a truck, the next time one of your audience members sees a truck, she might be reminded of that content. Cues only work well, however, if there is a strong connection with the content and if they stand out. So, if that audience member sees hundreds of trucks every day and trucks are associated with many other concepts, a truck might not be the best cue for her to recall what you presented. But the right cue –one that somehow connects to your content and is a bit more unique—will make your presentation more memorable.  

In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock creates a cue out of the visual image of the small footprint and high energy usage of the stage in a theater, relative to the rest of the footprint of a theater, to illustrate one of his many points: how tiny and energy inefficient the brain’s conscious processing capacity is in comparison to its massive and very energy efficient subconscious processing capacity. Now, every time I see reference to a stage or a theater, it brings to mind his point. 

The key to creating and delivering a memorable presentation is in keeping your audience engaged so that they form memories of your main points, and then facilitating their recall of those points after the presentation is over. In understanding how the brain forms and recalls memories, we can work toward producing some of those “best” presentations that people talk about!


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