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The Science of Memory – how to remember your presentation

September 3, 2021 | Paula Smith

Remember your presentation

Last blog post I shared some tips on how to help your audience to remember your presentation, your words and your critical key messages. If you missed it, you can re-visit it here.   I received a few emails from clients thanking me for those tips but also asking for some tips to help them to remember their own presentations. Most presentations are not word-perfect speeches, they are more conversational, but we still need to remember key aspects of the presentation and our key messages.

I worry I won’t remember my presentation. I always forget the same section of the model I need to explain. I keep forgetting people’s names were some of the concerns expressed to me.

And should I use palm cards? Let’s start with that one. In short, No!  It’s time to ditch those palm cards, you’re not at school anymore. However, most speakers do have prompts, notes or memory techniques to help keep them on track. Yes, you can still have prompts and notes. It’s how you use them that matters. 

So, here is a little bit of science on memory and a few tips on how you can remember a 30-minute presentation or even an 8-hour training day.

Let’s start with a bit of science around memory.

Although we are still discovering more and more each day about how our brains work, we do know that memory has 3 basic steps or stages. Encoding, Storage and Recall.

Encoding – We encode 3 ways

1. Visual (picture)
2. Acoustic (sound)
3. Semantic (meaning)

Research suggests that we can encode memory much better using semantic coding. That is memory with sense making or meaning. If you are sharing a story with your audience, your story will have meaning and emotion associated with it, so it is easier for you to remember it rather than a whole bunch of statistics that you haven’t made sense of yourself.  If you are trying to remember an image (vision does trump all other senses) put your personal meaning to the image e.g. If you are trying to remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, try and think of a personal example for each one of the 5 layers as it builds. You will find that you can recall it quicker when you have an emotional connection to the content. If you are presenting something you have little interested in, unless you have presented it countless times, you will have more difficulty remembering it.

Next, we have

Storage – Different information is stored in different parts of the brain.

The way we store information affects the way we retrieve it.  There has also been a significant amount of research regarding the differences between short-term memory (what we call working memory) and long-term memory (the ones that hang around for days or years). Short-term memory only lasts about 20 seconds, and we can usually remember between 5 and 9 things during this short timeframe if we had to recall it rather quickly. Memories have to go through the sensory input, then the short-term memory process first before they can move through to long-term memory. We also have Explicit memories, which are experiences and facts or concepts we know, and Implicit memories, those skills and actions we just know how to do. So, the question is how do we make sure our presentations move into the long-term memory?  and if some of the information doesn’t make it there, how can we effectively use cues, prompts and strategies to help us retrieve them?

The last stage of memory is:

Recall – To recall a memory, you need to revisit the nerve pathways created when the memory was formed.

The more times you revisit that pathway the stronger the pathway becomes. In other words, the more times you recall the information the better chance you have of remembering it and storing it in the long-term memory. That skinny pathway eventually becomes a highway if recalled enough times. Hence the saying ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ So yes, rehearsing and practicing helps you to remember your presentation too.  Active remembering with motor skills like, writing your notes, drawing your models or rehearsing your stage movement will also help to embed your memories more deeply.

Spacing also helps between recalls.  If you recalled the information 5 times over 2 days, you will have less chance of remembering your presentation as if you recalled it 5 times over 5 days.

Interesting fact – Memories are not always truthful, we sometimes integrate new experiences and sense making into our old memories creating false memories. And if there is a gap, we fill it with all sorts of interesting things we then believe is a memory. I know right…. if we can’t even trust our own memories, what can we trust? 

A few other tricks

Sleep on it – Yes sleep helps to embed and consolidate memories. Perhaps practice before bedtime.

Prompts – Posters or objects around the room, headlines for each section of your talk on your notes, your slides (do not use them as a crutch though, if the power goes out you need to draw on other strategies), pre-written flip charts, session plans, or even your handouts on a table in order can help you to keep on track of your training day. Stage actors who have lots of lines have a ‘prompt’ a person backstage to call out the first couple of words of their lines if they get a brain freeze to trigger the memory. Once they hear the first few words, they find their way quickly back to that pathway or highway in the brain again and they are back ‘on track’. The first few words on your notes will have the same result.

Mnemonics – Rhythmic phrases or music, like singing the times tables or catchy jingles or using acronyms like EGBDF (every good boy deserves fruit) to remember music notes are great for recall. Or VAS for remembering the 3 ways of encoding Visual, Acoustic and semantic. Create some of your own for your key messages. Your audience will love them too.

Stage anchors or create a location palace – E.g., when I walk to the laptop, I will remember to play the video and the front window of the room is where I share my story. If you rehearse in the same room it’s easier to do the walk through and each location will trigger what you want to remember but if not, you can replace the journey with another location e.g. a running trail and every km marker has a different activity (sometimes you have to make it really elaborate to remember it – like at the 1km mark you imagine yourself standing on a park bench shouting out your story and at the 2km mark, you tell the talking tree your key message which he repeats back to you.  Sounds a bit crazy but it works.  It’s all based on the scientific fact that your brain and spatial memory perceive space as a kind of image.

Tell someone – Talking trumps listening for memory. Tell a few people the main concepts and key messages of your talk. The more you share, the more you are strengthening the neural pathways in your brain.

Chunk it – This was the concept I wrote about last month. Chunk the information into bite size chunks. You can even number or name each chunk. I do this often.

Repetition – Yes repetition.  I use repetition to remember attendees’ names in the first 10 minutes of every training session. I do then need to space and repeat a couple of times over the next hour and then I am all good for the entire session. I don’t use name cards for less than 30 attendees. Yes, you guessed it; one week later though names have disappeared from my memory, unless a person has given me an emotional reason to remember their name. They may have been the funniest or the noisiest in the room. If I work with this whole room of attendees over a period of time (spaced recall) their names will embed into my long-term memory and some of my clients names I can still recall after 30 years. Repetition helps if you have a presentation to give at short notice. As a time poor university student, I used repetition to cram study the night before an exam. I would pass the exam but sadly not remember much of the content one week later. Glad I wasn’t studying to be a doctor.

Story it – If you need to remember a list of items. Make a story using the items. Stories embed in the brain in a different way because stories appeal to sequence, emotion and meaning.

I hope that helps you to not only remember your presentation but also to be more mindful when you are designing your presentation. If you design your presentation with the brain in mind, you and your attendees will have a much better chance of remembering it.

I am off to rehearse now for my next speaking gig.  And I will continue to rehearse each morning in the car for the next 3 days before I need to present it. Spaced recall and repetition… wish me luck.

Keynote Speaker CSP, Master Trainer, Author and Business Leadership Coach
Paula has been helping experts, entrepreneurs, leaders and teams to harness the power of speaking, leadership and effective communication for the past 30 years. 

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