What Science says Makes for a Memorable Presentation


Posted April 3, 2019

Most presentations are more likely to bore the audience into dozing than to stick with them and create a long-lasting memory. But why is that: what differentiates the forgettable from the memorable when giving a speech or making a presentation? Science has some answers for us.

The Serial Position and Recency Effects

The serial position effect and recency effects are cognitive biases – mental shortcuts our brains take – that mean we are most likely to remember the first and last items in a sequence and forget the items in the middle. These effects mean that both the beginning and ending of a presentation need to be on point. Don't substitute clever but tangential introductions or conclusions: hit your main points at the times they’re most likely to be remembered.

The Picture Superiority Effect

Another cognitive bias means that people will more easily recall information that has an associated visual. One study asked research participants to memorize a list of items, some presented as spoken words and others as images. They were better able to remember those items presented as images. The implication: presentations should incorporate visuals that align with the information being presented. 

The Redundancy Effect

The (bad) habit of many presenters to simply read their slides can backfire when it comes to memory. Specifically, presenting both text for reading and speech for listening can overwhelm working memory capacity; in other words, the audience is hit with too much redundant information too quickly. That’s the Redundancy Effect, and it’s why an Australian study found that PowerPoint presentations could potentially make it harder to master and integrate the information presented. Keep text on the slides themselves brief and to the point.

Structure versus Freeform

A freeform presentation or speech is harder for the audience to mentally parse and, therefore, to remember. According to research from Stanford University, it's 40% easier for audiences to remember structured than freeform presentations. The specific structure is up to you: chronology, thematic, before-and-after, answering the four Ws (who, why, what, when). A great strategy is to use the presentation to tell a story. Whatever you do, avoid speaking off the cuff if you want to facilitate the audience's memory.
All the factors that make for a great, memorable, and effective scientific presentation can be a lot to remember! For help, try our new course, “The Elements of Great Presentations: How to Make Your Communications Memorable, Readable and Tweetable.”
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.