Earlier this year, I ran a poll asking viewers which they were more likely to remember after two days: the beginning or the end of a presentation. Out of 272 responses, 54% chose the beginning, and 46% favored the end. The two numbers indicate a close debate. Let’s settle the ambiguity by analyzing other research findings.

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In scientific research on memory, the conclusion you may have heard most frequently is that people tend to remember items at the beginning of a list and at the end. The typical explanation is that first and last items in a list, when analyzed globally, do not have “neighbors” (items to the left of the beginning and to the right of the end); their sheer positioning makes them more distinct than middle items, and as a result they receive more attention, which increases recall.

What does this mean to you? Always treat the beginning and the end of your presentation seriously because people are likely to remember them regardless of what you do or say. Which would you rather they remember: that you apologized for something or spent 5 minutes on introductions, or the strong statement that you made very quickly and clearly about an important message? Same for the end. Which would you rather they remember: that you said thank you and were appreciative of their time, or a strong statement related to your message?

There are situations when either the beginning or the end is more memorable. These situations depend on how long your presentation is and how many highly contrasting materials you have. For example, if your presentation is fairly short (let’s say 15 to 20 minutes), it is likely that when you get to the end, the audience will still remember what you said first. This is important to know because if your audience must make a decision about your product or idea shortly after your presentation, you must prepare the beginning and end equally well.

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During long presentations (let’s say you’re speaking for 90 minutes), if you do nothing special at the end of your presentation (e.g., big rah-rah, fireworks, outstanding guest speaker), the beginning usually wins out over the end. This is because an audience usually pays less and less attention as the presentation progresses, which makes the beginning stand out. Audiences tend to lose attention because they get bored or assume you may be presenting the important information first. Items that appear first have more time to be remembered too – people have time to reflect on them during the rest of the presentation, whereas the last items have a shorter retention interval. Sometimes endings are forgotten simply because fatigue sets in.

To fully utilize brain science techniques in your presentations, register for our November 11 workshop!

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