Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions - Carmen Simon (2016)
Chapter 1. MEMORY IS A MEANS TO AN END
Why Memory Matters in Decision-Making
Would you tour a museum naked? You may consider it if you visit the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia. MONA is an extremely innovative museum, increasing its financial viability each year and disturbing many conventions in the art world. While typical museums are aboveground, this one is underground. While typical museums are easy to access, this one is on an isolated island, in a working-class district. You don’t access MONA by ascending massive staircases or passing between marble columns. You enter it via a tennis court.
Art exhibits conventionally have labels. MONA has none. There are no signs or directions, no logical route that visitors must take, and nothing is displayed across a timeline. The museum is a theater of curiosities, from a sculpture of a grossly flattened red Porsche, to rotting cow carcasses, to a library with blank books. Dark walls dominate with the intent to undermine the standard white gallery. An Australian magazine called MONA “a mash up between the lost city of Petra and a late night out in Berlin.” The museum’s daring themes of sex and death are in blunt contrast to the people of Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, who are modest and courteous. For an extra thrill, you can join the “naturist” tour in the buff after 9 p.m. The guards and guides will also be naked.
This unconventional approach to art belongs to David Walsh, a mysterious multimillionaire and mathematical savant, who came out of obscurity in 2007. Walsh made his money gambling, not in a James Bond, sexy kind of way, but rather in an applied mathematics kind of way. While pursuing a degree in math, he figured out that you could make money at casinos if you knew how to play within reasonable limits. The odds are always in favor of the house, but some money can still be made with low-yield, low-risk betting, backed up by a large amount of cash. Walsh found a partner to provide the financial backing, and wrote an algorithm that proved profitable in computerized gambling, with a focus on horse racing. As he made a fortune, he overcame a lingering social awkwardness from a sickly childhood and decided to “go public,” opening his quirky hobbies to the world and hoping for an audience.
While Walsh is atypical in many ways, he is quite normal in one way that marks all mentally healthy individuals. At some point, we all create something and hope that other people will act on it: read it, listen to it, like it, buy it, or recommend it to others. We want to influence people’s choices. But how do we get others to act in our favor in an age of increasing competition, complexity, and noise? This book reveals how to spark action by using an overlooked variable: memory.
People act on what they remember, not on what they forget.
The concept of memory is refueling the efforts of scholars and neuroscientists who are deepening the understanding of human behavior. The latest scientific findings place memory at the heart of adaptive behavior and decision-making. Scientists are also increasingly worried that our society is being stripped of the responsibility to remember much. We have increasingly more devices and programs that remember for us. Our phones store people’s numbers, social apps remind us of birthdays, slides prompt us on what to say in presentations, and more recently, plants can use Twitter to remind us to water them. At this rate, we are grooming generations of amnesiacs.
It is useful to have machines that remember things for us, but—at least for now—humans are responsible for evolving our society, and organic memory is at the core of what happens next. Particularly in business, if we don’t have a systematic way of getting others to remember what is important, we have to rediscover the formula for success every day.
Forgetting hurts business. Before MONA, Walsh had bought a two-acre property with two houses on it and converted one of them into a small museum. He remembers creating a venue that was “elegant, white, understated, and, basically, generic.” In other words, forgettable. Does this resemble business content you see?
Initially, Walsh considered the idea of a small museum out of necessity, and then out of guilt. He and his partner had won $18,000 at a casino in South Africa and discovered that legally they could not take that much money across the border. So he spent the money on an antique door instead, and that kindled his appetite for art collecting. One piece led to another, and before long, his house was filled to overflowing. When one of his cats broke an expensive piece, he knew he had to do something with his art collection.
He liberated the original bland museum by turning it into a venue that people could rent for work events or social functions. He enjoyed watching people experience parties within the context of a museum, and that combination stayed on his mind when imagining MONA. He kept asking obsessively, “What will happen if I alter the purpose of visiting a museum?” “What would get people through the doors?” “What will be memorable?” He even asked, “What if no one comes?”
These questions are natural because when we aspire to be a part of people’s future decisions, we implicitly ask what the future will bring. The attempt to anticipate the future is mandatory in understanding how to influence others’ memory. This is because all neurologically intact people are relentlessly on fast-forward. The brain has evolved to be a prediction engine because natural selection favors those who can accurately predict the future. At some point this morning, did you predict how your day would unfold, when your body might need food, and what you might do in the evening? And did you select specific actions based on these predictions in such a way as to maximize rewards?
What matters most is what happens next.
If the brain is a prediction engine, memory is its fuel. We can argue that the only reason we need memory of the past is so we can inform the future. In our everyday life, we make behavioral choices that maximize our biological fitness, which is why our brains have evolved to pick up key features in the environment, predict the rewards of these features based on past memories, and use this information to compute the most favorable decision.
In the past decade, with improved brain imaging technologies, we have reached a deeper understanding of how memory works. We’re at a point where we can see thoughts moving and images being formed and even spot the birth of a memory. There are limitations to these technologies. Some are better able to capture neuronal activity very quickly, but they do not reach far or deeply into the brain. We are still decades away from being able to fully decode the brain or download our memories and post them on social media. There may come a time when we can fit an MRI machine into a smartphone. But for now, there are many exciting insights into how the brain processes information, remembers, and decides what to do next. The purpose of this book is to translate current memory research into practical techniques you can apply today to help others remember and act on what you consider important.
Let’s start with what people remember naturally. Studies show that when we choose an action, we rely on memory to predict rewards and to guide our behavior in three ways:
1. A Pavlovian way, through which we subconsciously and reflexively alter behavior to ensure biological fitness. It takes only one experience with a hot surface (stimulus) to remember what to do next time to prolong survival (reward).
2. A habitual way, through which we repeat actions that proved rewarding in the past. Unlike the Pavlovian route, where rewards have innate, biological value, habitual decisions involve learning and remembering arbitrary associations. In scientific experiments, after trial and error, animals learn to turn left or right to receive food and go on autopilot afterward; we do the same after we initially exert cognitive effort to find the best way to get to work and follow it without thinking once it’s proved suitable.
3. A goal-oriented way, through which we anticipate outcomes based on the past but are willing to change our minds in light of new information. For example, we may take a new road to work because the habitual one is under construction, or we may apply for a new job because the old one does not pay as much.
All three routes to our next move have strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes they work cooperatively; other times they compete against each other. However, all of them are adaptive and predictive and are fueled by memory.
To be on people’s minds, you must become part of their reflexes, habits, and/or goals they consider valuable.
Scientists have compiled a list of stimuli that are biologically rewarding (whether seeking something pleasant or avoiding something unpleasant) and that elicit reflexive responses. Think of the automatic responses you have to sweet taste, putrefying odor, proper body temperature, pain, physical touch, snakes, flowers, an aggressive tone, play, courtship, sex, crying infants, sleep, novelty, altruism, or control over your own actions. These stimuli are considered primary reinforcers, meaning that they are prewired, not learned, and generate an automatic response. Contrast them with secondary reinforcers, such as money or promotions, which are learned and which require, at least initially, cognitive effort to generate action.
MONA is memorable because the subject matter is associated easily with what’s naturally on people’s minds and causes automatic actions. At MONA, there is plenty of novelty, stimulation, and playfulness that reflexively invite a response. The “no-label” policy for the exhibits is meant to allow visitors to be in full control over their actions and free them from what the curators call “the tyranny of instructions.” Walsh believes that the more words near a work of art, the worse the art. He also believes that forcing information on people makes them want to reject it, whereas inviting them to search for information makes them interact and remember.
To search for information at MONA, visitors have the option to use an iPod Touch, nicknamed the “O,” which displays context-aware content. As people walk through different exhibits, the information on the O adjusts to show more details about each piece. Walsh anticipated that at some point people would habitually look for some information about the art. Creating the O was a multimillion-dollar investment. Its context-aware content required a GPS system, but the museum is underground. The curators adapted technology used in the mining industry that enables miners to keep track of each other’s locations without GPS. The effort paid off. If you’re part of people’s habits, you’ve become part of their memories.
We also act based on goals, which, unlike reflexes or habits, allow us to change our minds in light of new information. Studies show that when rats learn the routes on a maze that lead to food, some are able to change their route when the food is placed elsewhere. The adaptive rats form a cognitive map of the maze and realize that different actions lead to different outcomes. Goal-oriented behavior produces adaptation based on a remembered mental representation (the cognitive map). MONA takes people off autopilot by removing any logical order in the exhibits or indications of what direction to take. At some point, visitors have to pay attention to where they’ve been and where to go next. The building does give you cues about your location within it, so you build a mental map of its scale, but for the most part, its design is intended to get you lost, so you think your way out and pay attention. If you do take the naked tour, as Smithsonian writer Tony Perrottet confesses, once you figure out what to do with your hands and eyes, “You’ve never been more alert to the art itself.”
The mistake some people make when trying to influence others’ memory is that they overestimate the importance of goals and underestimate the impact of existing reflexes and habits. Imagine this: Chris is an executive who believes that everyone in his organization must complete a new sales training program. He frames it as a program that will help each individual make more money, assuming that surely all share that goal. It may not be the most exciting training ever, but the novelty of the program has people jazzed. After a week, however, they revert to their old routines. It’s almost as if the training hadn’t happened. Did they forget that much? Yes. When there is too much novelty but no integration with existing reflexes and habits, as well as no reinforcement and no immediate rewards, forgetting is inevitable. To avoid this, either Chris must integrate a few of the novel techniques with some older ones that are still effective, or he must eliminate the kinds of cues that are likely to trigger old habits (e.g., old PowerPoint files that will prompt the old way of selling).
All the efforts to consider people’s reflexes, habits, and goals are paying off at MONA. Here’s how MONA stacks up against the competition: At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, visitors spend an average of 32.5 seconds gazing at a work of art. The Mona Lisa at the Louvre captures a visitor’s attention for approximately 15 seconds. In a study of 100 museum exhibitions across America, results showed that visitors stayed an average of 20 minutes. In contrast, at MONA, people stay over six times longer than the average. Many spend as long as five hours, and 30% of visitors return the next day. Despite its controversial collection and its label of a “subversive Disneyland,” the museum constantly receives awards for architecture, tourism, design, and technical innovation.
Tony Perrottet observes that while the most striking impact of the museum is financial—it has pumped more than $200 million into the fragile Tasmanian economy since MONA’s inception—the more potent effect is psychological. While Tasmanians once believed that the most important events always happened elsewhere in the world, they now have a clearer sense of their image and know they can be widely recognized as significant. As Adrian Franklin, author of The Making of MONA, puts it, the museum has helped Tasmania graduate from wilderness to sophistication. Lonely Planet agreed that it is making Tasmania “rise from its slumber.” We can make any business content rise from its slumber, too. And we don’t need millions of dollars. We just have to understand how memories are formed and how different variables contribute to influencing memory and compelling people to act.
Is it even possible to influence other people’s memory when we can barely take care of our own? It is possible because we now have more brain science research we can apply, and we naturally put more effort into leaving an impression. For example, business people don’t go to work and think, “Today I will spend 30 minutes to improve my memory.” But they do think, “Today I am going to spend 30 minutes to figure out how to win Customer X.” This thought is implicitly about how to influence someone else’s memory because people make choices based on what they remember. So we can count on the fact that we are more likely to put effort into influencing other people’s memory than working on our own.
In addition, it is impractical to study individual memory in isolation; enhancing our own memory is nice but not sufficient to guarantee a significant improvement in our lives. People function and evolve in complex systems. Even when we use autobiographical memory and reflect on individual experiences, many of those are a result of interacting with others. Behavior and success are shaped by social memory. It is not only possible to influence other people’s memory; it is crucial to human progress. When we share great ideas, and others remember and act on them, we progress. When we have great ideas and others forget them, we stagnate.
What are the variables that influence other people’s memories, and how should they be used? Let’s put them in perspective by learning from a classical parody and the discipline of math.
Charles Dodgson, a conservative mathematician at Oxford University, did not like the direction that math was taking in the nineteenth century. There was a new and abstract approach to algebra, in which you could use letters to denote numbers. There were procedures that made it possible to extract the square root of a negative number. And there was the new concept of projective geometry that made it possible to bend a shape into another shape if it retained the same properties (for example, a circle could be turned into an ellipse or a parabola).
This was too much for Dodgson to take. He believed in traditional algebra and Euclidian geometry and had a hard time reconciling with the new proposition that A × B was not equal to B × A. He found the perfect venue to vent his frustration. He adopted a pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, and wrote Alice in Wonderland (more formally, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). One of the most popular books of all time (by some counts, surpassed only by the Bible and Shakespeare), Alice in Wonderland has been evaluated as a satire on language, political allegory, a parody on children’s literature, or a Freudian descent into the world of the subconscious. However, new scholarly research points out the hidden math in the book, revealing Dodgson’s yearning for Euclidian geometry that had served the world well for 2,000 years. One of these findings is particularly relevant to how we can influence others’ memory.
Melanie Bayley, an Oxford scholar who has dedicated her doctoral thesis to the hidden math in Dodgson’s fiction, points out how the book rebels against the new math logic. For example, Dodgson makes the Cheshire Cat disappear, leaving behind only its grin, with the intent to show the increasing tendency toward the abstract in the field. He parodies the fact that cause and effect are no longer linked, by posing unanswerable questions such as “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” He mocks projective geometry by turning a baby into a pig.
In a way, Dodgson’s reaction to his new reality is not that different from the reactions we sometimes have to our current reality. We live in an age marked by complexity and change, some of which we don’t understand or are not ready to accept. Despite his bitterness, Dodgson offered a wise coping technique for times of complexity and change: focus on proportions rather than precision.
Throughout the book, Alice moves from the logic of traditional arithmetic to a world where her size varies from nine feet to three inches. In one chapter, the Caterpillar is sitting on a mushroom, smoking a hookah, and Alice tries to restore herself to her original size but ends up shrinking so quickly that her chin hits her foot. The Caterpillar shows Alice how eating the mushroom can make her smaller or larger, depending on which side of the mushroom she eats. Alice nibbles from different sides, and parts of her become smaller and others larger. “Keep your temper,” the Caterpillar advises Alice. Scholar Melanie Bayley points out this was not intended as an invitation for Alice to stay calm. At the time, the phrase “keep your temper” had a different meaning. Intellectuals considered it as “proportions in which qualities are mixed.” The advice was to keep proportions, regardless of the size.
Consider influencing others’ memory through the lens of proportion rather than precision.
The concept of proportion binds all the practical techniques in this book because there is no single factor that makes something memorable. It is a combination of elements, used in the proper ratio. If you put one spoon of sugar in your coffee, it will taste better. Three spoons of sugar will make it taste awful. It is the same with memory. Surprise, for example, is memorable, but too much of it can be disconcerting. An audience may still remember a surprising segment but not for the proper reasons or with the intended emotion.
What are some elements that we can combine to influence memory? To make recommendations on the proper ratio of variables, we must first agree on what memory is, as it means many things to many people.
Memory is the picture that comes to mind when you think of your last vacation; it is the ability to swim in a pool even though you haven’t done it in a while; it is being nauseated thinking of food you hate; it is taking the same route to the grocery store without thinking; and it is the knowledge that the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows. We have multiple memory systems to account for this array of memory types, and one of the formal ways to study memory is to look at it as the process we use to encode, store, and retrieve information. We can also study memory by its duration (short term versus long term) or by whether it is declarative (you can put it into words) or procedural (such as habits or skills).
Regardless of type, all memories consist of an association between neurons, so that when one fires, others fire, creating a pattern. Memory research shows multiple variables impacting memory. Some are under our control when we want to impact what people remember, and others are not. Overall, I have identified 15 variables we can use to influence others’ memory: context, cues, distinctiveness, emotion, facts, familiarity (tied to integration with reflexes and habits), motivation, novelty, quantity of information, relevance, repetition, self-generated content, sensory intensity, social aspects, and surprise. It is impossible to control how much sleep your audiences are getting before they listen to you, how much other content they just consumed or will view later, how similar this content is to yours, how long after content exposure specific memories must become active, how stressed they are, the mood they are in, or the drugs they are taking—all of which influence memory, too. However, we can focus on using the variables we can control in proper proportions.
We don’t have to remember all 15 variables by heart; various chapters of this book will address them in smaller combinations. A small dose of these variables makes a difference in memory. Consider popular decks available on slideshare.net. We can tell which ones influence others’ memory because people act on what they remember. Good decks stay on people’s minds long enough for them to “act” by sharing, liking, downloading, commenting, or embedding them in other sites. I analyzed a sample of the most popular SlideShares of 2015. The top 50 SlideShares contained, on average, 9 of the 15 memory variables, and 39.7% of the slides were categorized as “intense,” i.e., containing at least 7 of the 15 memory metrics that we can control. The SlideShares that utilized intense slides 40 to 60% of the time had roughly the same outcomes (i.e., shares, likes, downloads, comments, and embeds) as SlideShares that utilized intense slides 80 to 100% of the time. This means that we don’t have to work so hard on making every single component in communication materials intense. A small dose of these variables can still lead to action.
Memory needs sidekicks.
David Walsh could have built MONA anywhere in the world. He could have chosen New York, for instance. But he contends, “If this was New York we’d probably get a lot more visitors but have a lot less impact. So it would be drowned out by what I once described as the scream of cultural bland. There is so much going on [in New York] that no one would notice that this was interesting. It’s like eating chocolate after you eat a jelly bean.”
We often start creating content from a place of abundance. To avoid the temptation of including too many stimuli, set a framework and then decide the degrees of distinction within that framework (more about this in later chapters). When there is a framework, let’s say a set of slides in a PowerPoint presentation, some items can become distinct relative to their “neighbors.” Scientists call this salience. Items with less salient neighbors will be more distinct than items with more salient neighbors. This view challenges the belief that the beginning and ending of a sequence are always more memorable than what happens in the middle. It is possible that the beginning and ending of a sequence are salient because of their privileged position: no neighbors on one of the sides. However, you can rescue any middle in your communications (presentation, blog, e-mail, marketing campaign, training program) if you establish a framework first and then determine neighboring items around the ones you want to make memorable.
To be memorable, you must accept memory trade-offs.
Hugh Hefner took advantage of the concept of salience. Some issues of Playboy included pieces by John Updike, Arthur Miller, John Irving, Ian Fleming, and Ray Bradbury. In the 1960s and 1970s, Playboy was appealing to a literate, daring reader, appreciative of in-depth articles. It wasn’t unusual to read an essay about Hemingway by his son Patrick, and even the first English translation of a poem by Goethe. In recent years, the magazine has showcased investigative journalism and quality fiction. At some point, Hugh Hefner is known to have told the Playmates that “Without you, I’d be the publisher of a literary magazine.” The articles served as quality sidekicks to the pictures intended to be salient points, offering some justification for the famous claim “I read it for the articles.” In 2015 Playboy announced a new policy of no full nudity, so it will have to find new ways to distinguish what is important and what should serve as sidekicks.
David Walsh and Hugh Hefner could afford to include sex in their frameworks as salient points. When creating corporate or academic content, it’s not so easy. However, it’s not the type of stimulus that counts but how a stimulus relates to others within that framework. It’s about nibbling from the mushroom in the proper ratio. As you investigate the content you share with others, look at the ratio between different stimuli you’re including (text, pictures, videos, etc.). Ultimately, every component in your communication has the potential to be remembered. Even a complex chart can be memorable if it appears after a string of simple text-based elements because it is seen as a surprise that breaks a pattern.
How do you establish proportions when the variables that impact memory are imprecise? After all, few things are “fully” surprising or “fully” new. And something that is surprising may also be perceived as new. A modern approach in analyzing what influences memory comes from fuzzy logic, which embraces imprecise variables. Fuzzy logic is an area of math that focuses on reasoning that is approximate rather than precise. Contrasted with crisp logic where variables are true or false, 0 or 1, in fuzzy logic, variables may have a truth value that ranges from 0 to 1. This provides a way to arrive at a conclusion based upon vague, imprecise, noisy, or missing input information.
As you use the guidelines in this book, consider that depending on the context, a stimulus (text, graphic, video) may have a surprise rating of .8 or an emotion rating of .6. These ratings can be higher in one context and lower in another. We don’t have to assign specific numbers to our content, and there isn’t one stimulus that influences memory more than any other. When we are open to this type of approach, we will find it easier to embed the recommended variables in our communications because the fuzzy approach mirrors reality more closely. Few things in life are fully surprising, relevant, or novel and deserve a score of 1. It is not their individual precision that matters; it is their combination in the proper proportions that matters. It is about “keeping our temper,” using the variables that work for us, and distributing them across a communication sequence in such a way that salient items have less salient neighbors.
Learn how to vary the proportions of imprecise and unconventional stimuli, and you will enjoy the rewards of staying on people’s minds and compelling them to act. That’s what this book will show you how to do. Essentially, you will find out how to metaphorically balance Euclidian logic and the Cheshire Cat to get others to remember you and act in your favor.
KEEP IN MIND
✵ People act on what they remember, not on what they forget.
✵ What matters most is what happens next. People need memory to predict their next move.
✵ Memory guides action toward maximum rewards.
✵ To be on people’s minds, plug into their:
✵ Establish a framework, and then decide which items must stand out. Weaken their neighbors.
✵ Consider memory from the standpoint of proportions, not precision.