Presentation tips to tap into the audience’s working memory


Start your reading of this article by looking at this sequence of numbers.

Which is the odd?

1st 14th

2nd 40th

3rd 68th

4. 96

As you ponder your choices, your brain does a few things. It reads each number, displays the list of options, performs calculations, and keeps track of the result while doing more calculations until the problem is solved. This temporary storage of information required to complete a cognitive task is a general definition of working memory – and is of great importance in business presentations.

How so? When you think of the mental calculations required to find the correct answer in the exercise above (as you’ve probably discovered, it’s B), they’re no different than what you’re asking viewers to do: a series of items and keep these points in mind long enough to reach a conclusion. Some people equate working memory with short-term memory, but there is a subtle difference. Short-term memory stores information without manipulating it. Working memory implies that you are doing something with the information in the moment. If someone gives you a list of 10 US Presidents and asks you to remember the names and recite them, that is short-term retention. However, if they ask you to recite those names in alphabetical order, that’s working memory.

When presenting information to your viewers, don’t just ask them to remember what you shared. You’re also asking them to keep your main idea in mind, understand it, put it in the context of their business, take care of specific things, plan for the future, and more. All of these tasks require working memory. So how can you put working memory to good use? effective way at your next presentation? Here are three ideas supported by cognitive science:

1. Manage interference

When too many elements in your presentation are similar, you introduce interference—a working memory killer. Imagine slides in a presentation with images on the left and text on the right, and the format appears on most slides. After a while, the information gets mixed up.

Disruptions can be proactive (ie elements of previous presentations were too similar to yours) or retrospective (ie elements the audience encounters after meeting you are too similar). Retroactive inference is important because people typically associate forgetting with the passage of time, but forgetting is also influenced by events that happen after you’ve met someone.

How can you counteract interference? Clarify what needs to be remembered long-term and help people’s working memory keep that information alive by making it clear. Imagine you have a deck of three ideas for people to remember, presented in three columns on a slide. Reserve this three column design for these takeaways only. Then repeat that unique piece of information multiple times to refresh people’s working memory. New items overwrite old items in memory about every 30 seconds. Therefore, consider incorporating lots of repetition to keep working memory strong.

2. Group materials to strengthen working memory

Let’s say an important message that you want others to remember has 12 components. Instead of trying to get your audience to remember 12 independent concepts, group them into three or four sections. This gives listeners a higher chance of memorizing some things with precision.

This is useful because working memory is a form of cognitive workload; If you task people too much, they’ll look elsewhere for something easier to work with. So present your content in a way that allows for chunking that serves working memory.

You can chunk up (make generic groups) or chunk down (get special). If you’re giving a presentation about your company’s data analytics solution, you could create three generic groups and say, “Our solution includes visual analytics, advanced analytics, and streaming analytics.” More specifically, you could say, “Our solution includes dashboards, machine learning, and Real-time analytics.” The decision to move up or down depends on whether your audience cares about seeing the big picture or discovering deeper structures.

3. Connect new concepts with familiar ones

The scientific community is currently considering this formula for working memory: Attention + Long Term Memory = Working Memory. This equation assumes that when you have something on your mind to solve a cognitive task, you need to pay attention and tap into your long-term memory.

Therefore, you have something new to offer your audience and you want to help their working memory using techniques that grab attention (e.g. bold color, movement, size and position). Then connect the new items to concepts that are already in people’s long-term memories.

Suppose you are presenting a complex cloud infrastructure with multiple components. They hide most of the components and display some with bright colors to draw people’s attention. At the same time, you use a metaphor and mention that other solutions on the market are like scaffolding – they take listeners to the next level but aren’t strong enough to create a foundation. Your solution can be. This strategy draws attention automatically and uses long-term memory (a visual companion to scaffolding, construction, and foundations), freeing your listeners’ brains to pay attention to other elements as well.

When you share content with people, you ask them to perceive, store, access and reproduce information. Your general cognitive capacity is limited by the capacity of your working memory, which suffers even more from distractions. So, in virtual environments full of distractions, it’s important to support your audience’s working memory with the guidelines above.

Carmen SimonPh.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist and Chief Science Officer at corporate visions and B2B DecisionLabs. As an entrepreneur and keynote speaker, Dr. Simon developed an approach to create messages that are easy to digest and hard to forget. Presentation tips to tap into the audience’s working memory


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