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Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation

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PRESENTATIONS

Getting an Audience to Remember Your


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by Art Markman
SEPTEMBER 21, 2015

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https://hbr.org/2015/09/getting-an-audience-to-remember-your-presentation[06-03-2019 11:10:07]
Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation

Lots of articles about giving good presentations focus on structure and style. Tips focus on the role of stories to get people
interested in the material, the value of summaries at the end of talk, and the many facets of presentation performance – things
like how you should stand and ways to use your hands and arms as you speak.

At the foundation of any presentation, though, is a fundamental goal that is often overlooked in helping speakers to design
their presentation: that the presentation change the audience in some way.

To do this, you will almost always be trying to influence their memories, and so you need to be aware of how information gets
into memory in order to create presentations that will have high impact.

In most talks, you are trying to affect the explicit memory of your audience. Explicit memory involves the aspects of your
presentation that people can recall later (or perhaps at least recognize that you presented that information when they encounter
it later).

Sometimes, you also want to encourage people to develop a skill. Skills are part of procedural memory. Procedural memory takes
time and repetition to really learn. Think about the practice it takes to learn to touch type or to play a musical instrument or

https://hbr.org/2015/09/getting-an-audience-to-remember-your-presentation[06-03-2019 11:10:07]
Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation

sport. If you want your audience to develop a new skill, then you should create exercises to help your audience experience the
kind of practice you want them to get. After that, though, you need to help your audience to develop a plan for when and
where they will get enough practice to actually learn the skill.

More commonly, though, you aim to change the explicit memory of your audience.

This is the place where many presentations fall down. A general assumption behind most people’s talks is that if you find a
compelling way to state a message and say it clearly, articulately, and confidently, people will remember it.

In fact, decades of work on memory highlights three factors you can use to improve what people remember from your
presentations.

1. Follow the right sequence. First, there is a broad serial position effect. The first thing presented in a sequence is best
remembered. Information presented toward the end of a talk is also reasonably well remembered (though not as well as what
you presented at the beginning). The middle of a talk is least well remembered. That means that you need to get the most
important thing you want to tell people out right away.

One advantage of the often-used strategy, “tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told
them” is that you provide an overview of the key points of the presentation in the two positions in which the audience is most
likely to remember them. Unfortunately, many speakers open their talk with an anecdote that is engaging, but only tangentially
relevant to the topic of the presentation. The audience may easily recall this anecdote later, but it won’t help them to learn what
they really needed to know.

2. Draw connections. Connections among elements in memory matter. The things you pull out of memory are chunks of
information. The analogy I use for this in my book Smart Thinking is a bowl of peanuts. If you take peanuts out one at a time,
you get three peanuts when you reach into the bowl three times. But, if you pour caramel over the peanuts, then when you pull
one out, you get a whole cluster. After you draw from the bowl three times, you may have gotten almost all of the peanuts out.
Memory functions similarly. Making connections among the key points in your talk helps pour caramel over the peanuts in
memory and increases the amount that people remember from what you present.

3. Make the audience work. It requires effort to get information into explicit memory. The more deeply that your audience
thinks about the points you make, the more likely they are to remember what you told them later. Paradoxically, if your
presentation is too polished, you may reduce the amount of work that your audience has to do to understand what you are

https://hbr.org/2015/09/getting-an-audience-to-remember-your-presentation[06-03-2019 11:10:07]
Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation

telling them, which may inadvertently make the content of your talk less memorable. Think of this as the TED-talk paradox.
My experience is that colleagues will remember that they saw a particular TED talk without remembering any of the content of
that talk later, because the talks are so fluently delivered.

That does not mean that you want to give a confusing talk. But, it does mean that you need to provide opportunities for your
audience to think for themselves. Perhaps you can let them vote on alternatives. Ask the audience questions and get them to
make bets about what they think is right before giving them an answer. At the end of the talk, repeat the main points, but
encourage the audience to summarize it for themselves. When people explain key points back to themselves, they learn much
better than when they just hear it.

By designing your presentations starting with the ways you want to affect your audience, you can do a better job of
constructing an experience that maximizes your influence. Presentations are a fleeting opportunity to literally get inside the
heads of your audience. Don’t waste your time while you’re in there.

Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at
the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of
Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and
motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of
Leadership.

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Don Vaillancourt 3 years ago


Really good points about making a great presentation. I'm so focussed on doing a TED-like talk that I never
really thought about the other aspects of it. Thanks for the info.

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