The Science of Being Memorable

A memory expert’s advice for making your message ‘impossible to ignore.’

By Dave Zielinski


Common wisdom tells us that storytelling is the most effective way to get audiences to remember our messages—that telling tales is a surefire way to make an indelible mark on listeners’ minds and get them to respond to our calls to action. But a cognitive neuroscientist who has made a career of studying what people remember from speeches says memory is far more complex. Influencing audience recall requires a deeper understanding of how memories are formed and how they influence decisions.

Being memorable, it turns out, is about more than just having a good story.

Carmen Simon, Ph.D., is the founder of Memzy, a company based in San Francisco, California, that uses neuroscience and cognitive psychology to help organizations create memorable messages. She holds doctorates in cognitive psychology and instructional technology and authored the book Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions.

Simon’s science-based approach to improving what audiences remember from presentations has been applied by the likes of Scott Adams, creator of the popular American cartoon Dilbert, who used the techniques in developing an online presentation to help promote his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Adams’ presentation was honored by the online site SlideShare as one of the best of 2014, topping a multitude of contenders for the honor.

Simon’s research into presentations began as she studied scores of speeches and found much of the content to be forgettable, even when accompanied by well-designed slides. In one of her most well-known studies Simon asked 1,500 research participants to view a 20-slide presentation with one core message and then followed up two days later to ask what they recalled from the presentation. People remembered only four of the slides on average, a confirmation that presenters need to approach content design and message delivery in innovative ways to make them more memorable.

What Makes a Presentation Memorable?

Simon says speakers can use techniques to improve the odds of audiences remembering—and more importantly, later acting on—their key messages. Here are a few of those tactics.

Making Your Presentation Memorable

The end game for any speech is moving audiences to action, and that’s only possible if your take-away messages linger in audiences’ memories. Yet memory is more complex than we think it is. For example, if you were asked whether red or green was at the top of the traffic light, could you answer with certainty? Could you recall the design on the back of a penny?

Carmen Simon, co-founder of Rexi Media, a San Francisco-based presentation skills consulting firm, conducted a study on how many slides people actually remember from a typical PowerPoint presentation. About 1,500 participants were invited to view a short, online PowerPoint presentation of 20 slides, each containing only one core message.

After 48 hours, people were asked to recall anything they could remember about the presentation. The results were sobering, Simon says. Participants remembered on average only four slides out of 20. But on the flip side, significant changes to every fifth slide aided recall, she says.

What lessons can be drawn from the study? Simon says a number of techniques can help boost audience recall of your messages.

People remember the unusual. “For the brain to remember, presenters must deviate from a pattern in some significant way,” Simon says. If everything in your slides is equally intense (graphics, color, large font size) or equally neutral or bland, that sameness acts as an audience sedative, she says. But when a slide’s look or content varies from what an audience expects, focus and recall increases—as evidenced by the improvement in memory shown in the study by significantly altering every fifth slide.

Self-generated content improves memory. Audiences remember messages longer when asked to participate in or “co-create” your speech in some way. That could be as simple as leaving word blanks on your slides for audiences to verbally fill in, Simon says, or other participatory techniques. “Because most of us do so much research for our presentations, we think we have to pack every last thing we’ve discovered into an hour-long presentation, versus leaving some space for audiences to participate,” says Simon. “Participating gives people a stronger sense of ownership in the process, which creates a stronger hook in their memories.”

Go beyond aesthetics to meaning. While good PowerPoint slide design is important, speakers get into trouble when they worry too much about the aesthetics of their slides rather than the meaning they impart. When you invite audiences to process information deeply by invoking senses and provoking thought, they recall more. “You could contact audience members two or three days after your presentation, and they might not remember much of your slide content,” Simon says. “But they’re very likely to remember how you made them feel during the presentation.”

— Dave Zielinski (from the July 2014 article “Add Story to Your Slides”)


Give them something they anticipate … and then surprise them.

Simon’s research shows speakers should use a combination of recognition and surprise to embed themselves in audience memory. One of the best ways to capture attention is to break a pattern after audiences’ brains become “habituated.” People begin to disengage from presentations when messages or slides become too predictable.

Instead, the neuroscientist suggests breaking patterns by alternating between slides that are visually intense and slides that are visually simple, for example, or moving from a routine of seriousness to something funny.

Create the right blend of the ‘Big 3’ elements.

When Simon studied what made some stories more memorable than others, she found the best had the proper mix of three components: perceptive, cognitive and affective. Perceptive includes sensory impressions made in context and actions described over a timeline. Cognitive refers to facts, meaning or abstract concepts. Affective includes the elements of emotion.

A combination of the three components proves memorable because it activates more parts of the brain as opposed to a message filled primarily with facts and abstract concepts, which activates only language processing and comprehension areas.

Simon points out that many speakers struggle in the affective area because they think their content is too dry or technical to engage audiences on an emotional level. “But emotion doesn’t just come from the nature of your content,” she explains. “If you think your content is not intrinsically compelling, you as the speaker have to become the source of emotion.”

Simon offers the example of two engineers she watched present on the benefits of predictive analytics software. “They were so excited and passionate about the topic that I built lasting memory traces just from their emotion, even though I had no natural interest in the topic,” she says.

“If you think your content is not intrinsically compelling, you as the speaker have to become the source of emotion.”

—Carmen Simon

Don’t shy away from repetition.

One of the most overlooked tactics for boosting audience memory is simple repetition. Simon views many presentations each month and is usually surprised at how infrequently content is repeated. This is because speakers fear appearing too premeditated in their approach or feel they need new information for the novelty of it, Simon observes.

On the other hand, songs that top the pop charts constantly revisit the same phrase. For example, one study by Joseph Nunes of the University of Southern California found that hit songs repeat lyrics up to 20 percent more than songs ranking lower on the charts. While you don’t want to go overboard with repetition, you also don’t want to avoid it.

Be ‘future focused’ with memory techniques.

Many problems connected to audience recall are “not about forgetting the past but rather forgetting the future,” Simon explains. While speakers may have what they consider a strong message at Point A (during the speech), if the audience doesn’t remember or act on it later at Point B (when they’re facing a buying decision or other important choice), the speaker’s mission has failed.

While retrospective memory, or remembering the past, is useful, Simon says it is prospective memory—remembering to act on a future intention—that “keeps people in business” and makes speakers’ messages more influential in audiences’ future decisions.

Speakers need to build in audiences’ minds stronger associations or “cues” between the content shared at Point A and actions they later take at Point B. For example, before making a sales presentation on analytics software, a presenter could think about something potential clients might use daily. It could be a tool like Salesforce, for example. Then the presenter might ask, “How can I associate concepts I want prospects to remember about my product with Salesforce?” One solution would be to associate features of the analytics software with functions of Salesforce that the prospect uses on a regular basis.

The presenter would then repeat the association throughout the sales pitch. As Simon advises on her blog, “You prime your prospect’s brain to remember what is important and, with enough repetition and the promise of a strong reward (e.g., ‘sell more when you use this’), they will think of you each time they visit that particular functionality in Salesforce.”

Understanding how and why our brains retain content is key to making our own speeches stand out from the crowd. By creating stronger associations between our presentation content and subsequent triggers, we make our message more memorable and actionable.

For more ideas and techniques, you can view other top SlideShare presentations or key digital trends in presentations for 2018.


3 Steps to Adding Humor to Your Speech

If you’re having fun, your audience will too.

By Nick Jack Pappas

Adding Humor To Speech.png

Everyone wants to be funny. It starts with memories of the grade school class clown causing fits and giggles and taking eyes and ears away from the lesson at hand. We all learned early that, when it comes to getting attention, humor is foolproof.

That’s what started me down the path of stand-up comedy, and, 10 years later, toward working at Comedywire, a startup in New York City that helps companies and individuals add humor to their messages. Studies have found that when a good line makes someone laugh, that person is three times more likely to retain the message. Funny bones are directly connected to our brains.

With speechwriting, however, ­being the class clown isn’t always the best ­approach. It’s not just about getting ­attention; it’s about getting the right kind of attention. In many cases, you’re much closer to the teacher desperately trying to keep students’ interest than the class clown trying to shift their focus.

Here are three simple steps to consider as you write your next speech.

Step 1: Don’t Be Funny.

Seems counterintuitive, right? But the ­advice I offer my clients is to avoid adding humor at all when they write their first draft.

Why? When you’re giving a speech, your focus should always be on presenting a clear, concise message. Too often, speakers try to shoehorn a joke into their speech because they want their audience to laugh, but the outcome is more disjointed than complementary.

A common approach is starting the entire presentation with a joke, hoping to lighten the mood. Consider, however, that the first lines of your speech are crucial. That’s valuable real estate to give to a joke that may hit or miss. If you tell a bad joke, the entire structure of your speech could come crashing down.

Always think of humor as decoration. Your message is your foundation.

Step 2: Look for the ‘Handles.’

After your first draft is written, take a ­second look and find opportunities to ­insert jokes that augment your message. Joe Toplyn has been a head writer for ­former American television show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno, and in his book Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV Toplyn talks about looking for the “handles” in a headline. Handles are words you can hold onto as you look inside your speech for opportunities to add wit.

One of my clients is a neuroscience professor. He, more than many, understands the value of humor on influencing minds. The problem is, neuroscience can be quite boring. Making complex terms relatable is a skill.

For example, read this line from one of his lectures: “The hypothalamus makes up less than 1 percent of brain mass, yet it is perhaps the most important 1 percent.”

In this case, we grasped onto the handle “1 percent” and considered what else his students might know about that reference. We added this line:

“The other 99 percent of the brain was responsible for the Occupy Hypothalamus Movement a few years ago.”

Referencing the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York City isn’t the funniest line in the world, but it did get laughter from a very tough crowd of college students.

Step 3: Know Your Audience.

When it comes to writing humor, I can’t think of a more important rule than knowing your audience. As you punch up your speech, consider who you’ll be speaking to. What age is your audience? Do they share a common profession? Are there cultural barriers or nuances to consider?

People tend to laugh most at what they can relate to. A joke about econometrics will usually fall on deaf ears, but it will get you a standing ovation in a room full of economists. Keep in mind that the only thing that makes your speech different from everyone else’s is you. A common insight for stand-up comedians is that the one thing everyone in the room has in common is that they’re all staring at you. That’s why their first joke is almost always about themselves.

Always remember, if you’re having fun, your audience will have fun too.

Cracking the Laughter Code

Want to be funny? First learn why we laugh.

By Tess Iandiorio

Comedy.pngAnyone who is experienced in public speaking can easily recognize that the funniest speakers are often the most memorable. But how do some speakers manage to keep an audience in stitches for an entire presentation? It is not an innate gift. Veteran comedian Jerry Corley says the key to using humor well is understanding why people laugh. When you understand what triggers laughter, you can then learn techniques to weave humor into speeches, presentations, and everyday interactions.

Corley has studied what makes people laugh from the most intense platform from which to glean this information—standing behind the microphone in ­comedy clubs. “My whole life I’ve been dedicated to finding out the ‘why’ of comedy,” he says. He has spent 30 years learning what triggers laughter by gauging audience reactions to his own material as well as studying other performers.

Now a comedy coach and founder of the Stand-up Comedy Clinic in Los Angeles, California, Corley has written jokes for comedians Bill Hicks and Chris Rock and worked for eight years as a writer for the popular The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. His friends refer to him as “the joke doctor” for his ability to dissect a joke, rework it or tweak it for maximum effect.

How Do You Learn ‘Funny’?

A common debate among comedians is whether or not a person is born funny. Famous comedians have intimated that comedy can’t be learned. Sure, some ­people may be born with a quick wit or a sharp tongue, but Corley asserts that, like any other skill set, comedic skills can be practiced and improved upon.

Corley knows firsthand, because he taught himself. In September 1991, while waiting for a cab during a rainstorm in New York City, a kind stranger with a gruff voice offered to share his taxi. Relieved to escape the downpour, Corley joined him in the cab. He recognized with a start that the generous stranger was his idol, legendary American comedian George Carlin. Throughout his 50-year career, Carlin made audiences laugh at the most mundane experiences and the most complex philosophical questions. He gracefully played between lighthearted material, like the difference between the way cats and dogs blink, and weighty observations like man’s tendency toward materialism and vanity.

“You can take any sentence and ask, ‘What’s the audience assuming here? Do they see a picture in their minds? How can I change that picture?’”

That serendipitous taxi ride to the ­airport led to a friendship that provided Corley several chances to pick his hero’s brain on comedy. When Carlin claimed that he knew with 98 percent accuracy whether a joke would get a big laugh before he ever performed it in front of an audience, Corley wanted in on the secret. But Carlin simply said, “I don’t know, kid. You’ll have to find that out for yourself.”

Study the Sources

Corley set out to do just that. “I decided to get every tape I could find … I watched all the comedy shows. I studied day and night, five or six hours a day,” he says. Corley also set his sights on a specific goal: to be a writer for The Tonight Show. “I started watching The Tonight Show and writing out all their jokes, longhand,” he says. Corley studied their structure and told the jokes to himself aloud over and over. “Eventually, I started to get it,” he says.

What he learned is that any sentence can be funny. Whether you are writing a speech or a monologue, the lesson is the same: “You can take any sentence and ask, ‘What’s the audience assuming here? Do they see a picture in their minds? How can I change that picture?’” Corley says learning to use humor is as simple as sharpening your awareness of opportunities to shatter expectations and create surprise. “If you take any statement or piece of dialogue and you suddenly change the perception of what is being said or change the perception of the meaning of a word, you’ll have surprise, which will result in funny,” he explains.

Corley learned to listen for which words in a sentence could lend themselves to double entendre. He learned how to shatter assumptions that the audience would likely make. He learned to listen for instances of two dissimilar ideas converging. When he felt he understood how to deconstruct and analyze what made him laugh, he could better see how to build his own material. “When I first committed myself to writing and studying the structure, it didn’t take me long to really start to master it and … to get my job with Jay Leno.”

Learn the Laughter Triggers

Studying funny people along with the ways audiences reacted to different types of humor, Corley learned the “science behind why we laugh” and says it all boils down to psychological laughter triggers. These triggers, he says, are “hard-wired in our DNA” to incite laughter. To weave humor into your speech or presentation, include these laughter triggers.

Surprise. Much of what strikes people as funny does so because it is surprising. Misdirecting the audience to assume you’re going to say one thing and then ­saying something unexpected is a great way to harness the power of surprise.

Embarrassment. Speakers can use this psychological laughter trigger by poking fun at themselves—perhaps by sharing an embarrassing experience or discussing their flaws or shortcomings. Sharing your personal mishaps will invite the audience to laugh with you.

Superiority. The audience feels superior to the speaker and thinks thank goodness that’s not me! Superiority plays on people’s insecurities. Allowing the audience to feel superior to you can help them laugh at you. Being self-deprecating is one way to use this laughter trigger to weave humor into a presentation.

Recognition. Recognition draws on experiences that make the audience think Yes! I’ve done that too. Observational humor relies heavily on the audience’s recognition. Discuss something that will cause the audience to recognize having had similar experiences or feelings. Toastmasters could discuss, for example, the nervousness they felt before giving their first speech or the shock of hearing a high number of filler words reported by the Ah-Counter. These topics could lead to a laugh from fellow Toastmasters because they understand how you feel.

Incongruity. Using incongruity means imposing characteristics of one thing onto another. An example of this is anthropomorphizing an animal or an inanimate object. An object having thoughts or an animal speaking can be funny simply ­because those are characteristics they don’t normally possess.

Release. To use this laughter trigger, try telling a longer story that creates tension, and then provide relief with a funny conclusion. An example of this might be a story that causes the audience to pause and question whether you’re being serious; when you laugh or explain that you’re not, the audience laughs from release. This tension, followed by the release of laughter, will help make your point memorable.

Make Them Laugh … and Remember

Humor is one of many tools to help sow the seeds of your message in the audience’s minds. For anyone giving a presentation, the chief goals are to deliver a memorable message clearly and effectively—and, hopefully, to entertain all the while.

George Carlin theorized why laughing helps an audience retain information in his book Last Words. “When you’re in front of an audience and you make them laugh at a new idea, you’re guiding the whole being for the moment,” he writes. “They are completely open, completely themselves when that message hits the brain and the laugh begins. That’s when new ideas can be implanted. If a new idea slips in at that moment, it has a chance to grow.”

Corley says that a sense of humor is like a muscle. The more you flex it, the more you will recognize humorous opportunities in speeches and in conversations. As with public speaking, you won’t wake up one day and possess all the skills you yearn for, but learning to be funnier is indeed possible. “You just need good, solid structure, surprise and to understand what triggers laughter,” Corley says.

Jerry Corley is a stand-up comedian, screenwriter and comedy teacher. To learn more about him and his strategies on using humor, visit his website.

Miracle Mile Club Officers Attend TLI

On August 4, several club officers attended the Toastmasters Leadership Institute at Keiser University in Miami.

This training session helps officers become more effective leaders and helps our club earn DCP requirements.

I had the pleasure of serving as facilitator for the District’s new Public Relations Manager, Linda Chapman, who provided the group with valuable tools to more effectively perform our roles as VPPR.