Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions - Carmen Simon (2016)


How to Handle Content Sacrifice

Smith Magazine, an online publication, firmly believes that people should have a place to share their life stories, and their staff invite anyone with a good narrative to submit it to their website. There is a caveat: users have to limit their life story to six words. Here are some examples:

New house. New closets. Same skeletons.

Siri, delete Mom from my contacts.

Brought roses home. Keys didn’t fit.

Head in books, feet in flowers.

A few days from now, will we remember these stories better than longer stories? Brevity is advantageous because it gets attention and sustains it since there is not much to absorb. It also creates a feeling of mastery and completion, which generates positive emotions. Message miniaturization is increasingly popular and appeals to modern audiences. But what happens when we can’t bow to the rhetoric of the micromessage? And how short is too short and how long is too long where memory is concerned?

Let’s start with the assumption that you have a message that will move your audience toward a reward or away from a punishment. If this condition is not met, the discussion about optimal length does not apply because no amount of content will be memorable if it’s not linked to obtaining relevant rewards or avoiding pain. If this condition is met, consider the steps below when determining the length of your message.


In an earlier chapter, we discussed verbatim versus gist memory. When we want others to remember precise information, to recollect it with details, we aim for verbatim. If we are satisfied when others are familiar with what we said, without recalling many details, or use some of their own words to describe what they remember, we are aiming for gist.

Considering the ratio between verbatim and gist has immediate impact on content length. If we aim for verbatim, we have to leave some room for repetition and elaboration to make sure those concepts stick in a precise way. In other words, simply sharing some key words in a brief message will not make them memorable just because they are short.

For example, let’s say we want an audience to remember three steps for creating a successful e-commerce platform. Let’s summarize these steps as “enable,” “engage,” and “execute.” To make these words stick, we have to link them to what we discussed in the previous chapter: perceptive, cognitive, and affective elements (e.g., concrete scenarios, testimonials, abstract ideas, facts, and emotions). We would also have to repeat those three words multiple times. These techniques add up in time and content length.

On the surface, the presentation is about three words, and it may seem that we can keep it short. But those three words run the risk of being similar to other words people will encounter after that presentation. Type “the three Es of …” in a search engine and you will find that others describe their content using three Es, too. It will be difficult for an audience to remember who said what, unless we have strong anchors and distinctive hooks for that content.

Less is not necessarily more if we aspire to memorable content. We sometimes need more content, and the intent is not to create more memories. It’s to create a few precise memories.

Short feels good but is not always memorable.

If we aim for gist memory, the standards for length are looser. We can get away with more content, as long as at least one main message is clear and we draw attention to it often. And if the content is complex, we don’t need to sacrifice all the complexity; we just need to ensure that we return frequently to that one main message we would like our audience to retain. When we use the guidelines for noticing cues, repetition, and distinctiveness, we have a good balance between the gist and one verbatim message that ties everything together.

At any given time that people are listening to us, their working memory has capacity limitations. At any specific moment, they can keep in their working memory up to four items, and items that are in focus all at once may be associated with each other in listeners’ minds. When we present more content, those associations are no longer formed. If associations are not important and people can get the gist, then lengthy content is acceptable.


If our intent for a communication effort is to have others simply “like” the content, leave a comment, or share it with others, these intentions are better achieved with shorter content. On the other hand, if the audience needs to make a difficult decision, such as awarding us a significant amount of money, effort, or time, then longer content is necessary to be convincing.

Listerine can get away with a message such as “We fight bad breath” because the company is asking for little money, time, and effort. It’s harder to convince someone to buy a new marketing platform worth $50,000 after an elevator pitch or even a 30-minute presentation. If 30 minutes is all we have initially, then the main intent for the conversation changes to “Can we schedule another meeting to explain more?” In this case, the only item for the audience to act on is to grant us more time. With each exposure to information, we can aspire to a bigger decision. One of the mistakes we sometimes make is that we are too ambitious about what others should be acting on next. Because of this ambition, content is unnecessarily long: we feel the need to express everything all at once so that our listeners can make a buying decision when what we should really be after, at least initially, is sharing enough content for them to make a “time allowance” decision.


In a research study, participants were asked to recall either 6 or 12 examples of when they showed assertive behavior (e.g., asked the boss for a raise). Then they were asked to rate how assertive they considered themselves to be. If participants based their judgment on the quantity of the content that came to mind, they should rate themselves more assertively when they could recall 12 examples instead of 6. If they based their judgment on the ease with which information came to mind, then they should rate themselves as more assertive if they could recall 6 easy examples rather than struggle recalling 12. The study confirmed the latter hypothesis. People scanned their personal histories, and the memories that could be pulled easily were considered diagnostic of a specific trait. People thought they were more assertive when 6 easy examples came to mind.

The situation is reversed when we make judgments about others. We rely more on the amount of content we retrieve rather than how easily the information comes to mind.

In one study, when participants read either a small list or a large list of arguments made by other people, they tended to be more influenced by the larger list. The more reasons people can think of for hiring you, the more likely it is that they will make that recommendation. In these situations, people link the number of items to frequency or probability. For example, people tend to be more easily persuaded by an appeal when they are told it contains nine rather than three favorable arguments.

When you analyze your content, determine this: Are you offering pieces of information that describe traits of a specific audience? For example, are you asking listeners if they are keeping up with the new economy of increasingly demanding customers and operating in an increasingly mobile world? If you expect an audience to identify with specific traits, keep the content short. However, if you’re presenting on a subject about which your listeners don’t have much information or context, and they must make an important decision, then longer content is beneficial.


Sometimes our audiences are in charge of how much time they allow us to speak. A client says, “You have an hour for this presentation.” Someone may be a bit thriftier: “We can give you only 30 minutes.” In an investor presentation, you may have 10 minutes. Someone may just want your elevator pitch.

Adjust to any of these situations by starting with two questions: “What do I want the audiences to remember?” and “What do I want them to act on?” If these are clear—and knowing that we speak at a rate of about 140 to 160 words per minute—you have a metric for how much you can say in 30 seconds, 10 minutes, or 1 hour. Treat each of these segments as a stepping-stone for the audience to get closer to a reward. Antonio Bertone, global director for brand management at Puma in Boston, looks at 15-second commercials as “flirtations.” He considers them teasers, and if you treat them as such, they must be short. “You don’t want to be like a joke that goes on too long,” he reminds us.

There can be advantages to time limits. Research shows that when limitations are imposed on us, we end up being more innovative. Look at Yves Klein who painted using only blue. Or photographers who create just in black and white. Check out “ukulele weeps” by Jake Shimabukuro: he produces moving music on a tiny, four-string, two-octave instrument. Treat a limited amount of time as an opportunity to clarify your main message.

It is also practical to ask: Have we earned the right to more time? I remember being at a store and rushing to pay at the register, when the cashier started a story. Imagine my reaction: we expect a cashier to be fast and efficient. Storytelling is not something we picture at the cash register. “I had a dream last night,” she began. I thought selfishly, “She has 20 seconds to finish this.” She did it in less. She said, “Yesterday, I took a cab and forgot my keys in it. That really happened. Then last night, I dreamed that the cab driver brought my keys and was standing by my bed, watching me sleep.” Her brief story was so potent that another shopper joined us to empathize and recognize how creepy that must have been. The store clerk intuitively knew she had a short time to appeal to someone, and she did it masterfully. We can all learn from her: take only the time granted by a specific context, and if you push the limits, don’t go for too much. When we do it well, we earn the right to more time on the next occasion.


Another way to mitigate complexity and the need for longer time is to consider the question: Under what circumstances does exposure to content feel short? Scientific experiments confirm that we feel time is flying by when:

Something is visibly progressing. At stoplights, seeing the number of seconds we have to wait reduces the perception of wait time. Reflect on ways in which you can show your audiences how much progress they’ve made toward the completion of something they find rewarding. Showing progress through a presentation, setting specific times for conversation (“I will spend 10 minutes discussing X”), and providing progress bars for content download are just a few examples of how you can positively impact the perception of time.

For written online content, reading position indicators—in the shape of color progress bars, a display with the number of words left, or even “minutes left”—helps us manage our expectations of time better. In formal presentations, seeing “slide 3 out of 12” puts us at ease. The same is true of meetings or conversations for which we set a specific time (“the meeting is from 11:00 to 11.30”) and refer to the duration that remains (“we have only 10 minutes left”).

Attention shifts. When our attention shifts constantly, we experience the passage of time less keenly. I know a college in Edmonton, Alberta, that could not immediately fix the problem of slow elevators, so the administrators placed mirrors next to the elevator doors—and received fewer complaints. Consider directing your audiences’ attention toward rewarding stimuli and vary the stimuli frequently to avoid boredom.

An experience is considered aesthetic. Abundant literature demonstrates that aesthetics is not just a subjective matter. Things that look and feel beautiful alter our perception of time; we want to stay longer and return more frequently to what we consider aesthetically pleasing.

How do we cater to aesthetics in business content? We can start by ensuring content is well organized. Business content is often considered complex because it is chaotically displayed, not because it really is complex. Guidelines such as proximity, contrast, dominance, hierarchy, balance, and unity are just a few of the techniques that give an audience the feeling of organization, which influences the perception of time and memory. Proximity indicates a connection between close elements. Contrast distinguishes items by emphasizing differences in physical or semantic properties. Dominance helps us focus on only one element out of many. Hierarchy shows a difference in the importance of message components. Balance implies equal distribution of these components. Unity means that all components of your message appear to belong together. Any of these elements influences how the brain processes information. For example, in one study, participants were shown four fictitious molecules along with their names and were asked to remember the pairing of molecule and name, as well as how many “spokes” it had. Participants had better recall in the group in which the molecules and their names were in close proximity because the brain organized them rapidly, leaving more time for encoding.



Consider providing your listeners with a proper mix of fact-based content and aesthetics so they too can have, as one of the six-word life stories described earlier, “head in books, feet in flowers.”


•   Clarifying what an audience must remember and do helps to filter unnecessary content.

•   Keep it brief when an audience must identify with the content. Offer more when your listeners don’t have much information or context, and they must make an important decision.

•   Earn the right to provide more information by offering value.

•   If your content is long, alter your audience’s perception of time by offering visible signs of progress, shifting the audience’s focus frequently, and making the content aesthetically pleasing.