As an executive coach, a question I receive often is: how do I make presentations memorable?

One of the techniques I apply rigorously is the use of repetition as a memory magnet. Using repetition is no big surprise (the more often we see or hear something, the more likely it will stick); yet repetition is frequently overlooked because presenters want to cram more content into a short amount of time, and nothing is repeated. If you want to have control over what people remember, it is best to learn content sacrifice, and focus on the part of the message that really matters.

In the example below, the CEO of an eCommerce company delivered a keynote presentation on the importance of bringing eCommerce into the modern world, by using digital techniques (the same way old movies have been “digitally remastered.”) The first question I have for any presenter is “what would you like your audience to remember?” I ask this question on the basis that audiences forget 90% after any presentation. It is not always possible to get the audience to remember more, but it is possible to control the 10% they do remember.

In this case, the presenter’s 10% was the notion that if you start with customer satisfaction, undergo an organizational change, and move from e-commerce to pure commerce, then you have joined the modern and profitable world of doing business. Once I understand the 10% of a presentation (and support it by no more than 4 points), I coach the presenter to repeat that slide at least 3-4 times during the presentation.

Figure 1. Repeating the agenda 3-4 times during a presentation leads to retention

This technique works because:

  1. It gives the brain small chunks to process (we are more likely to retain long-term 3 items than 7 items).
  2. It helps the brain “carry” the small chunks from one part of the presentation to the next. When your audience members are listening to you, their working memory is taxed with a lot of items (graphics, auditory information, along with baggage from their own mind). Repetition helps them transfer important information from slide 2 to slide 12. Otherwise, that information is gone.
  3. Repeating the same items reactivates the pathways that the audience starts to form with new content. Reactivation is necessary for memory consolidation.

In the example below, the speaker delivered a keynote presentation on the topic of “understanding the marketed mind.” In this case, the presenter’s 10% was that we must master data analytics, psychology principles, and biometrics in order to get better at marketing. We repeated the 10%, and also made it look different than any other slide in the presentation (see green slides in Figure 3).

Figure 2. Repetition can be enhanced by using attention triggers such as color

In Figure 3, we pair up repetition with an attention trigger: a bright green color. This way, we ensure that when the 10% important message is displayed, people pay attention. Therefore, they are more likely to process the 3 items in those slides because they are looking at it; after a blue pattern has been established and the brain habituates, the color change attracts attention in an involuntary way.

As a scientist, I constantly ask the question “do these techniques actually work?” We used repetition as a memory magnet and color as an attention trigger in a recent keynote presentation for Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He was asked to deliver a keynote presentation at an IBM event. We repeated his main message (his 10%), which was based on the notion of improving one’s odds for success.  This message was supported by 3 points: goals are for losers, passion is overrated, and luck can be manipulated. We repeated this message 5 times, even though it was only a 25-minute speech (see Figure 4).

Figure 3. Repetition works even when it is a short speech

One of the best ways to see if you had a “memory magnet” in your presentation is to note whether people are repeating what YOU thought was your 10% after the event. We looked at the Twitter feeds that appeared during and after the speech, and the majority of people are repeating back his 10% (see Figure 5). As a presenter, this must be one of the greatest compliments you receive, and a mandatory metric in your advanced speaker repertoire. Scott was excited about our method and published our observations in a blog on the science of making your presentations memorable.

Figure 4. A good memory magnet is when people are repeating back your 10%.

Two more advantages of knowing your 10% and repeating it: 1) it helps when suddenly your presentation time becomes shorter (e.g., others before you speak for too long or an organizer says “sorry, you only have 10 minutes instead of 30.”) Given that your most important points are repeated, you can address them briefly, and then elegantly jump to your last conclusion slide. And 2) if you ever get stuck on the message and lose your way in the flow, you have a “go to place”: return to your 10%.

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