Take Charge of What your Audience Remembers

We ask people on our courses what they remember from the last presentation they went to. Typically they either remember nothing, or a random point or story that the presenter told.

So when you’re presenting, take charge of what your audience remembers. Here are six ways to do that:

1. Focus your presentation around one Key Message

Decide on what is the most important point that you want to get across to your audience. We call this point the Key Message. Then build your presentation around that Key Message. It’s very tempting to have more than one Key Message. But by doing this you dilute the power of each message.

2. Make that Key Message simple and concrete

Take the time to craft your Key Message so that it is easy for someone else to grasp. A traffic engineer we were working with drafted this Key Message:

Implementing urban design principles will ensure that this roading project is sustainable.

We worked with her to transform it to this:cycleways-walkways1
Look for abstract, conceptual words in your Key Message and see if you can replace them with specific, concrete words that your audience can “see” in their minds.

3. Flag your Key Message

You want your audience to be alert and paying attention when you state your Key Message. You can do this by saying something like:

Here’s the most important thing I want you to get.

Then pause….then say your Key Message. We call this a flag because it’s like waving a flag to say pay attention to the next thing that I’m going to say. It’s equivalent to a teacher saying “Pay attention now because this is going to be in the exam.”

4. Match your Key Message to a memorable image

Adding images to words, aids recall. However, do make sure that there is an obvious match between your Key Message and the image that you choose. If the picture doesn’t match, then not only will it not help, it will actively distract your audience as they try and work out what the link is. Richard Mayer has extensively researched multimedia learning. He concludes that adding interesting photos which are related but not directly relevant to the information being taught, interferes with learning. In an insightful article, John Windsor of You Blog calls pictures which are not relevant to your point “visual noise“.

5. Display your Key Message on a slide and leave it up for a while

If you’ve found a good image to support your Key Message, combine your Key Message and the image on one slide. If you don’t have an effective image, just display your Key Message against a neutral background. Al Gore did this for one of his points in his latest TED presentation. His slide looked like this:


This gives your Key Message longevity. When you say your Key Message it’s been and gone in just a few seconds – leaving it up on the slide while you’re talking about it will help your audience to remember it.

6. Repeat your Key Message

Martin Luther King repeated the theme of his 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 11 times. As a result, most of us remember “I have a dream…”, even though we weren’t there.

At the very least, say your Key Message twice, once near the beginning of your presentation, and once at the end. This will take advantage of the Primacy Effect – (this is our tendency to remember things which are presented to us first) and the Recency Effect (our tendency to remember things presented last).

But you can also restate your Key Message during the body of your presentation. The repetitions are most effective when they are spaced-out over time. See John Medina’s BrainRules for more information on how memories are strengthened over time.