If you gave a presentation last month, odds are that your audience has forgotten 90 percent of what you said.
Let that sink in for a moment.
That’s the finding of a 19th-century German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus, cited in Dr. John Medina’s bestselling book Brain Rules:
[Ebbinghaus] is most famous for uncovering one of the most depressing facts in all of education: People usually forget 90 percent of what they learn in a class within 30 days. He further showed that the majority of this forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class. This has been robustly confirmed in modern times.1
And if you’ve ever sat through a lecture or training presentation, you know this is true.
The instructor starts into a mountain of material and continues–breathlessly–for 45 minutes. You scurry to scribble notes as fast as you can, but it’s not enough. At the end of this tsunami of information, the instructor asks, “Any questions?”
Why This Doesn’t Work
If you know something someone else doesn’t, it’s likely that you may suffer from what Chip and Dan Heath call “the curse of knowledge” in their book Made to Stick.2
Say, for example, that you’ve played guitar for 20 years. During that time you’ve taken lessons, read books, played in bands, studied the music and styles of Clapton, Hendrix, and your favorite players. You’ve learned open chords, barre chords, inversions, scales, and a fair bit of music theory. You’ve played until your fingers were raw then you built up calluses and then you played until they were raw again.
You know a lot about playing guitar.
Then a friend says, “Hey, I just got a guitar. I love the way you play–can you teach me to play like that?”
Where do you start?
I mean, if they want to get good at guitar, they’ve got 20 years of learning to master. How do you even begin to teach them everything you’ve learned?
How could you possibly condense 20 years of learning into a few weeks of lessons?
But this is what many instructors and presenters attempt to do when they teach or speak. They think that because they know something, you should know it, too. After all, it was important enough for them to learn it–it should be important enough for you to learn it as well. And they’ll do their darndest to cram it into the 60, 20, or 10 minutes they’ve been given.
That’s the curse of knowledge.
And it doesn’t work.
Just ask Hermann Ebbinghaus. Or Chip and Dan Heath. Or Nobel Prize-winning physicist and professor Carl Wieman:
…a number of times Kathy Perkins and I have presented some non-obvious fact in a lecture along with an illustration, and then quizzed the students 15 minutes later on the fact. About 10 percent usually remember it by then. To see whether we simply had mentally deficient students, I once repeated this experiment when I was giving a departmental colloquium at one of the leading physics departments in the United States. The audience was made up of physics faculty members and graduate students, but the result was about the same—around 10 percent.3
John Medina has observed the same problem when working with business professionals:
The most common communication mistakes? Relating too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots. Lots of force-feeding, very little digestion.4
In many cases, your audience won’t remember your talk because you gave them too much at once. At other times, it may simply be that the talk is just plain boring.
Fortunately, however, you can fix this. Here are two suggestions that draw from resources in neuroscience, psychology, as well as our own experience.
If you’re wondering why people can’t remember anything from your presentation, consider this: our short-term memory is extremely limited. Carl Wieman explains.
The research tells us that the human brain can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once. Exactly what an “item” means when translated from the cognitive science lab into the classroom is a bit fuzzy. But the number of new items that students are expected to remember and process in the typical hour-long science lecture is vastly greater. So we should not be surprised to find that students are able to take away only a small fraction of what is presented to them in that format.5
While your audience may not be as bad as Tom Hanks doing the “Mr. Short Term Memory” skit on Saturday Night Live, the reality is pretty close. The solution in this instance is, in Wieman’s terms, to “reduce the cognitive load.” In layman’s terms, that means make it easier on your learner’s brain.
The effective teacher recognizes that giving the students material to master is the mental equivalent of giving them packages to carry. With only one package, they can make a lot of progress in a hurry. If they are loaded down with many, they stagger around, have a lot more trouble, and can’t get as far. And when they experience the mental equivalent of many packages dumped on them at once, they are squashed flat and can’t learn anything.6
In other words, the less information you give your audience in your presentation, the more likely they’ll remember it. Ask yourself, “What do I really want them to get from this?” Focus your talk around that core idea.
Make it Rich
You may think that “doing less” means “dumbing it down” for your audience. Strip it to the bare essentials like Sgt. Joe Friday: “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”
You’d be wrong.
Surprisingly, just the opposite is true.
If you want your audience to remember your talk or lesson, you need to make it rich with meaning and examples. Neuroscientists tell us that “the more elaborately we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory.”7
So how do you elaborately encode information? While it sounds complicated, it’s not. In fact, you already know how to do it: use emotion, stories, and pictures.
Think of a favorite film. Which lines do you quote? You remember the parts that made you laugh, cry, or cringe.
We remember the things we feel because our brains are wired to do just that. When your brain receives an emotional stimulus, it responds by jotting “Remember this!” on a chemical Post-It note associated with that event.8 Emotion, therefore, is a great memory trigger.
When you use emotion, you tap into another benefit as well. When people feel, they care. And when they care, they act.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University tested this by presenting two groups with letters seeking donations to a child welfare charity (Heath 165-167).9 The letter for the first group presented facts and statistics about hunger, drought, and refugee conditions around the world. The second group’s letter, however, told the story of a seven-year-old girl named Rokia who lived in Mali, Africa. The letter explained that she lived in extreme poverty and that a donation would change her life.
Want to guess which group donated more? The second group.
How much more? Over twice as much.
Remember that your talk or lecture should invite your audience to change, to action. Help them feel and they’ll both remember and act.
Stories aren’t just for children. Abraham Lincoln, for example, frequently told stories to entertain as well as instruct.
Drawn from his own experiences and the curiosities reported by others, [Lincoln’s stories] frequently provided maxims or proverbs that usefully connected to the lives of his listeners. Lincoln possessed an extraordinary ability to convey practical wisdom in the form of humorous tales his listeners could remember and repeat.10
Like Lincoln’s pithy anecdotes, stories in the form of examples can be the building blocks of a memorable business presentation or lecture.
Our brains are designed to associate new experiences and information with previously acquired information. When you provide stories and “real-world examples” that illustrate your content, your listener’s brain processes it in far more meaningful ways than when the facts are presented alone.11 Like Starbucks to a coffee-addict, examples and stories are the perfect “elaborately encoded information” food that your audience’s brains crave.
Don’t be afraid to use stories in your presentation. Frankly, they’re the one thing that your audience will probably remember more than anything else from your talk.
Many presentation slides are filled with text.
Many presentations don’t captivate.
It turns out that, of our five senses, vision wins–no contest. Fully half of your brain’s thinking resources are devoted to vision.12 The problem for presenters (and audiences) is that text-heavy slides don’t take advantage of the brain’s preference for pictures.
You’re far more likely to remember a slide with a picture than one with text. In fact, if you add a picture to your message when you present, your audience will remember an astonishing 65% of your message. Compare that with the typical 10% retention mentioned earlier and you grasp the power of pictures.
When it comes to the PowerPoint slides you usually see, however, John Medina pulls no punches. Prefaced with the subheading “Toss your PowerPoint presentations,” he assesses the current state of presentations.
The presentation software called PowerPoint has become ubiquitous, from corporate boardrooms to college classrooms to scientific conferences. What’s wrong with that? It’s text-based, with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images. Then they need to do two things:
1. Burn their current PowerPoint presentations.
2. Make new ones.13
What to Do Next
Take a moment now to reflect on what you’ve just read.
What do you remember?
My guess is one of the pictures or maybe the story about the guitar lessons–which included a picture.
The path forward is pretty clear, isn’t it? If you want people to remember your talk, then–
- Keep your message simple. One big idea, please.
- Make it rich with emotion, stories, and pictures.
Want more ideas? Go grab 9 – A Simple Guide to Better Presentations. It’s free.
1. John Medina (2010-07-06). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition. Page 100.
2. Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Made to Stick. New York: Random House, 2007. Page 19.
3. Carl Wieman. “Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education?” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. September-October 2007.
4. Medina, 88.
7. Medina, 110.
8. Medina, 80.
9. Heath & Heath, 165-167.
10. Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005-10-25). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Kindle Locations 3167-3169). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
11. Medina, 113ff.
12. Medina, 231.
13. Medina, 240.