The Science of Creating Memorable Content

carmen_simon_interviewby Karen Ronning-Hall

Companies spend big bucks developing content to attract and retain customers. To achieve these goals and save money, many companies invest in making their content intelligent: discoverable, reusable, and adaptable. But what happens when that content is forgettable?

Dr. Carmen Simon asserts that before content can be intelligent, it must be memorable. She says audiences typically remember only 10% of the content shared with them. The other 90% is forgotten. To make matters worse, the 10% that one person remembers typically differs from the 10% another person remembers.

Imagine the time and money we could all save if we knew how to control what our audiences remember about our content, if we could break through all the distractions with content so compelling that people couldn’t ignore our message.

I had the opportunity to interview Carmen over the phone and explore how science could help us design memorable content. A co-founder of Rexi Media, Carmen holds doctorate degrees in instructional technology and cognitive psychology. She applies what she knows about neuroscience and human cognition to help people design unforgettable content.

Carmen has some high-level clients singing her praises. For example, she helped Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, develop a presentation to help him sell his latest book. Out of millions of presentations, his was honored as one of The Best SlideShares of 2014. The exposure on SlideShare’s site catapulted his book sales. In his blog, Scott credits Carmen’s work,

“The science-driven SlideShare outperformed everything else I tried, by a wide margin … I thought I had a good handle on what people would find interesting and engaging. I don’t. But, science filled the gap.”

In this interview, summarized below, Carmen describes scientifically researched techniques that you can apply to your content to make it more memorable, actionable, and influential.

In the comments below, Carmen invites you to contribute to ongoing research by answering these questions: What is something that somebody told you and you’ll remember forever? What is something that somebody did in your presence and you’ll remember forever? Why do you think those memories are so strong for you?

You can catch Dr. Simon’s talk, “Neuroscience of Presentation: The Science of Making Your Story Memorable,” March 24, 2015, at the Intelligent Content Conference. REGISTER today and save.

How do you apply science to content creation?

Carmen: You can’t have intelligent content unless people remember it in some meaningful way. In my business, I coach people on how to give effective presentations. People spend a lot of time researching and creating content. I began noticing that much of this content is forgettable, even when beautifully designed.

I started asking, “Why put all that effort into something that people are going to forget? Why create all of these pieces of disposable content? Can we improve the content to make it more memorable?” As a scientist, I approach this problem from my expertise in two areas: neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

Combining neuroscience and cognitive psychology gives us clues about where attention is processed in the brain, how memories are formed, and how decisions are made. This information can be applied to practical applications, such as making content memorable and actionable.

How does research support your recommendations?

Carmen: I stay current on the latest research in my field. I also conduct my own empirical research. For example, last year I conducted a study involving 1,500 people that led to some surprising findings. I presented 20 slides with tips on how to dress for a video webinar. Two days after the presentation, I asked the subjects what they remembered.

Two-thirds of the subjects (1,000 people) remembered three or four slides, a higher retention rate than for the average business presentation. However, the most interesting finding was that one-third of the subjects (500 people) remembered nothing – but it wasn’t a pure zero. While a few people said, “I remember nothing,” the rest “remembered” things they had learned from other peoples’ presentations.

It’s devastating to a presenter’s ego when all that hard work gets attributed to somebody else. It’s a huge loss of opportunity, and it’s potentially damaging when a company’s brand messages get mixed up with a competitor’s brand messages.

My research results reflect a concept in cognitive psychology that we call “interference.” If your content isn’t distinctive enough, if it looks too much like other content, people forget it or attribute it to somebody else.

The practical implications of this research intrigued me. I realized that no one else was applying neuroscience and cognitive psychology to the problem of improving content to control what people remember.

How can we develop more memorable content?

Carmen: I start with the premise that people typically forget 90% of the content they look at. This premise is true for content presented in a finite amount of time, such as presentations, web content, marketing content, and so on. It doesn’t apply to training that must be 100% learned and remembered to perform a job, such as the skills needed to pilot an airplane or perform dental surgery. Extensive training and repetition increases retention beyond the 10%.

For content with limited exposure to an audience, our goal is to make a strong impression: to take control over the 10% of information we want the audience to remember. At the beginning of a project, I suggest content developers ask themselves two questions:

  • What do you want your audience to remember? (three or four points)
  • What do you want the audience to do? (call to action)

We measure success by how closely audience members’ memories and actions match what the content creator wanted them to remember and do.

For example, in one study with a client we found only an 8% match between what the presenter hoped people would remember and do and what members of the audience said they remembered and would do. By redesigning the presentation, we increased the match from 8% to 39%. We consider this improvement a huge success.

What practical tips can I apply to my content?

Carmen: People forget things for a variety of reasons. By understanding why people forget, you can craft your content to increase the chances that it will be remembered. With your key messages and call to action in mind, think about your content in terms of three elements: attention, memory, and decision.

memory slide

This key slide is repeated several times during Carmen’s live workshop on how to make presentations more memorable. She calls this her “10% slide” because this content is the 10% she wants people to remember. You can bet that most workshop attendees leave the room remembering the importance of attention triggers, memory magnets, and decision drivers. (Photo by Marcia Riefer Johnston)

Trigger attention

Attention is a zero-sum game; we pay attention to some things at the risk of forgetting other things. We look at the world with wide eyes, but we see little. If your content doesn’t grab your audience’s attention it will be forgotten. Add elements of surprise and variety to your content to trigger interest and attention.

Improve memory and recall

People forget things when there is too much similar content. This is where the concept of interference comes into play. When things interfere with each other in our memories because they look alike, we either forget them or get confused about the source. Differentiated content gets remembered.

People forget factual information that doesn’t connect to them personally. Invite your audience to process information deeply by invoking the senses, asking questions, and provoking conversations. Encourage audience participation and co-creation of the content; this sustains interest and improves memory of your key points. The more deeply people process information, the better their recall.

People also forget things when you present too much information at once because their brains have to work hard to remember it all. Several studies show that unless your audience finds your key points easy to remember, they won’t look at your content favorably. This concept is called “cognitive ease.“

For instance, in one study, people were asked to give three reasons why they liked their BMWs, and other people were asked to give 10 reasons. Afterwards, they were asked how much they liked their BMW. The more reasons people generate for liking a particular item, the less they report liking that item. We speculate that once a person gives three or four reasons, the brain has to strain to come up with additional reasons. When you keep your content focused on a few easy-to-remember key messages, your audience will enjoy the ease of remembering them.

Activate decision making

Research shows that decision making requires a combination of reason and emotion. Unfortunately, most business content leans heavily on analytical information, such as facts, figures, diagrams, and complex analysis.

Emotions drive action and create memory markers, powerful memory triggers. When you experience something emotional, the brain encodes a marker. Later when you experience something similar, you remember that feeling. These markers can serve as beacons for recall and action. Thus, memorable content includes both reason and emotion.

Do you see differences across genders, cultures, or generations?

Carmen: I’m sure there are differences. I look at the development of content from a neuroscientific basis in terms of how the brain is likely to pay attention, to remember, to make decisions – regardless of where people come from, their age, or their gender.

For instance, we know that, regardless of age, people today have surpassed the threshold for stimulation. The brain is constantly looking for more stimulation compared to decades ago. We expect more stimulation and get bored when things are static. Content that includes patterns with elements of surprise will be more successful than keeping a static, constant pattern.

We also know that most people don’t get enough sleep these days. Sleep acts as a memory consolidator, and sleep deprivation causes people to forget. Our current lifestyle tends to produce overloaded, fatigued brains, and this makes it tough to create memorable content. Given how sleep-deprived most of us are, I think we’re lucky if our audience remembers 10% of our content.

What’s next?

Carmen: I’m currently researching and writing my second book, which will be released toward the end of 2015. Many books advise people on ways to improve their own memory. My book will focus on how to influence and control what other people remember about content. My working title is, “Impossible to Ignore: The Science of Being Remembered.”

At some point, everybody wants to make a lasting impression. This book will guide readers on how to create messages that linger in the minds of their audiences by using scientifically researched techniques.

Summary

In the last decade, we have learned more about the brain and how it functions than we have in all of human history. Carmen’s research and insights guide content developers who want to take advantage of the latest findings to make their content more memorable and actionable.

Scientists like Carmen continue to gain a better understanding through ongoing research. Carmen invites you to be part of the research by answering these questions in the comments below: What is something that somebody told you and you’ll remember forever? What is something that somebody did in your presence and you’ll remember forever? Why do you think those memories are so strong for you?

We hope to hear from you. Join Carmen and other thought leaders to learn more about how to develop more effective and influential content at the Intelligent Content Conference March 23–25.

Learn more

For more on Carmen’s research, check out these presentations and articles:

Intelligent Content Conference 2015

Want to hear the rest of Carmen’s story? Catch her talk, Neuroscience of Presentation: The Science of Making Your Story Memorable,” March 24, 2015, at the Intelligent Content Conference.

REGISTER for the conference today. Use discount code ICC100 (valid until March 20) to save $100.

Here are two other things you can do right now:

About Dr. Carmen Simon

Carmen (@areyoumemorable) is the brains behind the Rexi Method. As an experienced cognitive scientist, she applied the latest neuroscience research findings to develop the Rexi Method. Carmen is a published author and a frequent keynote speaker at conferences in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. She holds doctorate degrees in instructional technology and cognitive psychology, and she uses her knowledge to offer presenters a flashlight and a magnet: one to call attention to what’s important in a message, the other to make it stick in the audience’s brain so they can act on it. Carmen’s coaching helps business professionals motivate listeners and stand out from too much sameness in the industry.

About the interviewer

Karen 2014 PRO-2C-FINALKaren Ronning-Hall (@karenronning) is the co-founder of Kaia Communications Inc., an agency that specializes in helping high-tech organizations reach larger audiences for their ideas, products, and services. Her 20+ years in high-tech marketing and technical communications reflect her love of content development and innovative technologies. Karen is passionate about researching and sharing communication best practices. Read her blog posts at www.kaiacomm.com.

 

Title image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski, Content Marketing Institute

 


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