CONTROL WHAT YOUR AUDIENCE REMEMBERS - Impossible to Ignore - Carmen Simon

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


Practical Ways to Avoid the Hazards of Random Memory

So far, we have noted that it is practical to approach memory from a future perspective for three reasons: (1) the brain is constantly on fast-forward to stay adaptive, (2) we look to the future to extract value for our present actions, and (3) when we communicate at Point A, we aspire for others to remember and act in the future at Point B. Prospective memory, which means remembering to act on an intention in the future, includes noticing cues, searching memories, and executing on intentions. If we have prepared an audience for these three steps at Point A, we increase the likelihood of action at Point B.

When we want to influence others’ memory, we must start with this question: What is it exactly that we want them to remember and act on? In asking this question, we implicitly ask another: How much would we like others to remember? We realize it is not ideal for our audiences to remember everything we do or say. There are situations when we would prefer that people forget something we did or shared. Budweiser may want people to forget a controversial Bud Light bottle that read “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” Urban Outfitters wants us to forget its women’s T-shirt that read, “Eat less.” Amazon and Sears want us to forget that at some point they carried swastika rings on their sites. JCPenney pulled out of its shops a girls’ T-shirt that read, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me,” apologizing to consumers and admitting that the T-shirt “does not deliver an appropriate message.”

There are times when we make blunders or cross the line, and the human tendency to forget helps us stay in business and retain customer loyalty. There are also times when forgetting is intentional because we want to move away from the old and toward the new. Imagine you just created a new training program on communication techniques for a global company. The techniques work in one country but don’t in another. When we don’t forget an impractical past, we form bad habits. Luckily, people are good at forgetting what does not serve them well.

Discarding an impractical past serves us in the future.

Intentional forgetting is helpful. Accidental forgetting is what we must avoid. To stay viable in business, it is critical for us to help audiences keep in mind valuable information—and just as critical for us to stay humble about the quantity of information we aspire for others to remember.


For over a century, scientists have been investigating how much people remember after being exposed to new information and, equally important, how much they forget. A concept called the “forgetting curve” hypothesizes that we lose information over time when we make no effort to retain it. The forgetting curve is exponential after the first session, meaning that in the first few days after exposure to content, we forget most of it, up to 90% by some accounts. Even memories that are strong at first are fated to be forgotten.


The little that we do keep in our minds stabilizes over time. Let’s call this the metaphorical 10%, since it is difficult to measure definitively how much business content people really remember, because they don’t typically consume it with the intent to memorize. Sometimes, they may retain 1% from a stimulus, sometimes 20%, and when the stakes are high, they may retain a lot more.

What erodes existing knowledge? Forgetting typically happens for three reasons: People don’t pay attention to what we tell them in the first place (failure to encode). Even if memories do become encoded, people may still forget because their memories are not consolidated. Consolidation of a memory trace takes a few days or weeks—sometimes even longer—and is influenced by sleep, stress, anxiety, or exposure to more information after we speak to that specific audience (this causes interference and failure to store). Even when memories are encoded and stored, people may be missing the proper cues to bring those memories to mind (failure to retrieve).

The forgetting curve should not be confused with the myth that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they see and write, and 90% of what they do. No study has found such conveniently progressive statistics. This memory pyramid is not supported by science (how is “reading” different from “seeing”?). Donald Taylor, chairman of the Learning Technologies conference, notes that “those who prefer copy-and-paste to reflect-and-consider” have been perpetuating this memory myth with a series of Technicolor pyramids and bar graphics, which have no validity.

The forgetting curve, which is backed by science, reminds us that retention decreases quickly at first and more slowly later. Psychologists and mathematicians have joined forces to create a mathematical formula that expresses the nature of the forgetting curve. What we know so far is that the forgetting curve depends on the strength of the initial memory trace and the difficulty we have in retaining that memory over time. For example, if we learned an array of nonsense syllables, we may be able to recite them well immediately after learning them (the memory trace is strong), but we will have difficulty retaining those memories for a long time. However, if we had a discussion with a loved one, even weeks later, the strength of the initial memory may be weak, but we are still somewhat familiar with what took place during the conversation, even though we don’t recall the details (“I vaguely remember you mentioning that interior designer and the witchcraft”).

Despite a lot of forgetting, there is the opportunity for a small percentage—that “10%”—to become part of our audiences’ long-term memory, and it is important not to leave it to chance. I’ve been asking this question of business professionals—“What is your 10%?”—to challenge them to identify the critical message they want to make memorable to their audiences. Here are 10% messages I still recall from business presentations I’ve attended in the past few months:

✵ The top four mistakes we won’t make in Q4

✵ Generating business value from machine data

✵ Good data guides smart business decisions

✵ Big Data was so last week

The memorable communicator practices content restraint and has a strong 10% message. In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown points out an intriguing fact. Each year at the Academy Awards, the most distinguished prize is the best picture award. The media build up the hype for this weeks and weeks in advance. At what point during the awards ceremony do we take a break and maybe make a sandwich? Film editing. Yet ironically, there is a correlation between best picture and film editing. Since 1981, all movies nominated for best picture were also nominated for film editing. And two-thirds of those that won the award for film editing went on to win the prestigious best picture award. This is a reminder that knowing what to cut in our content and expressing an essential 10% message can have tremendous rewards in becoming impossible to ignore and getting others to act in our favor.

Ultimately, the problem is not that people remember very little. The problem is that they remember very little at random. Imagine you’re speaking to five people. Unless you take control of that 10%, they will. Each person will take away a different message. After a few days, if you ask those five individuals what they remember from your conversation, you will be surprised. I confirmed the concept of random memory in a study I conducted in 2013. I invited 1,500 people to view online a PowerPoint deck of 20 slides, with one message per slide. After 48 hours, I asked them what they remembered. On average, people remembered four slides. Participants who viewed the decks in which I had not manipulated specific slides remembered four slides at random. When I consciously asked the question, “Can I control what they remember?” and changed some slides specifically with that goal in mind, participants took away what I wanted them to take away. For example, in one manipulation, some slides had a different background color than the rest. One group saw mainly picture-based slides with a few text-based slides, while another viewed the opposite. In some decks, a few slides contained emotionally charged pictures among mainly neutral pictures. For these groups, participants remembered what deviated from the pattern. Overall, manipulating specific slides did not help people to remember more slides; it got them to remember specific slides.

What happens when we don’t take control of this small percentage that audiences do remember? Content creators and the recipients of that content both report unproductive meetings, rambling e-mails that are misunderstood or ignored, uninspired and anemic presentations, communication that needs to be re-created. In short, random memory exhausts time, misuses effort, and loses business.


People retain very little and at random. How do we control what they take away at Point A so that at Point B we can trust that they remember and act on what we deem important? To answer this question, we return to a concept from Chapter 1 related to fuzzy logic, which has evolved from the need to work with items that are vaguely defined but can still be analyzed with mathematical formulas.

For example, let’s say we want to determine the membership of a human to a set: alive or dead. Using binary logic, we can assign someone a value of 0 or 1. This set is a crisp set, meaning that it has clear, sharp boundaries. Someone can be either fully included or fully excluded from this set. Now let’s say we want to assign a value for how rich someone is: the membership to a set is not so clear. This is because it is more difficult to determine the cutoff point at which “rich” begins; the “rich-people” set does not have sharp boundaries. Using fuzzy logic instead of binary logic, a person may belong to different sets with different degrees of membership. Someone who has $1 million in the bank might have a .2 membership in the rich-people set in Luxembourg but a .9 membership in the rich-people set in Romania. Fuzzy logic makes it easier to handle uncertainty and helps us work with items that are incomplete or imprecise. Memory belongs to this category because variables that impact it cannot always be defined with the precision of a 0 or 1, especially in a business context.



The scientific approach to memory has borrowed from fuzzy logic and has produced the fuzzy-trace theory, according to which we form two types of memories: verbatim and gist. Verbatim memories are word-for-word, accurate representations of what we learned in the past. Recalling European capitals is an example of verbatim memory. These answers belong to crisp sets. By contrast, gist memories include the general meaning of something that happened in the past, and they are less accurate and specific. They belong to fuzzy sets. For example, thinking back to the last hotel you stayed in, you may not remember the exact room number, but you may remember whether you had a good experience.

Gist memories result in a sense of “familiarity” with the stimulus. This is why students sometimes fail on exams that require precision: they mistake familiarity for verbatim. “I thought I knew it” is their typical response at a failed grade. Gist is tied to meaning, and it does not always map directly to verbatim information because it is relative. We consider a 20% chance of rain low and a 20% chance of a heart attack high.

Gist memories tend to be longer lasting than verbatim memories. This is because people go in and out of paying attention to others every 12 to 18 seconds. During these segments, we engage in an internal dialogue that is more valuable and more rewarding than the details of the stimulus. Our internal dialogue has a stronger chemical signal, a natural high. During these moments, we formulate a meaning, and because of the stronger chemical signal, it is longer lasting than the precise details around us. A few early readers of this book wrote me to say that they enjoyed the section on “clues” (instead of “cues”) and that they appreciated the idea behind the “exactness” of words (their way of describing the word “verbatim”). People don’t remember what we say; they remember what they think we say, and this is the foundation of an enduring gist memory.

We may not remember what we experienced, but we remember what we understood.

The 12- to 18-second internal process of making meaning must not be confused with mind wandering, which is the experience of not remaining focused on a topic. My friend James, from Uganda, says, “I am in a business meeting and a few minutes into it, I am crossing Lake Victoria with my father.” In this example, the meeting moderator did not manage to hook into a reward that is strong enough for James, so he simply exited the conversation, not even trying to make sense of it. This can be dispositional (some people are more prone to mind wander than others) or situational (the meeting participants or the materials presented are boring).

Verbatim memory is a bit harder to keep intact for a long time. How many books did you read only once in school and now vaguely remember the plot but not the characters’ names? Influencing others’ verbatim memory for the long term is not impossible; as we will see in later chapters, verbatim memory requires stimuli that people can process easily (e.g., simple words or actions that are reflexive or habitual) or more intensive and repeated exposure for stimuli that require cognitive effort.

It is not entirely true that “people will not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.” Think of a recent argument with your spouse or close friend, and it is likely you remember a combination of what they said and how they made you feel. Some words may be running through your mind still. In the PowerPoint memory study mentioned earlier in the chapter, 86% of participants remembered precise words from the 20-slide deck. The rest used a combination of words from slides they had seen, along with their own words, to describe the four slides, and were accurate in their description.

Keeping verbatim and gist memories in mind, at Point A it is critical to decide what is more important to you and in what ratio. Are you after a gist or a verbatim 10% message, or a combination? The answer may depend on your industry. In the medical field, for example, a lack of verbatim memory may be life-threatening. Consider these drug names: Advair versus Advicor, Bidex versus Videx, Cidex versus Cedax, Dioval versus Diovan, Doxil versus Paxil, Kwell versus Qwell, Ranexa versus Prenexa. They are so easy to confuse. People have even confused Allegra with Viagra. About 25% of medication errors are related to pharmaceutical names that are barely distinguishable from others, and doctors, pharmacists, and patients report experiencing this confusion.

Do you want people to remember exactly what you say or … sort of what you say?


When deciding between gist and verbatim memory, it is practical to consider the expertise and age of those we address. When making decisions, experts are shown to need less information but process it less precisely. For example, using simple, gist-based representations, expert doctors have better discrimination regarding patient outcomes compared with novices. Experts know how to streamline judgment and decision-making and integrate them better with other knowledge. When we address an older and more experienced crowd, we can present many details, knowing these people will extract the gist that integrates well with the rest of their knowledge inventory.

Take caution, however. Relying on gist memory makes even experts prone to biases. For instance, let’s consider the base rate of a disease to be 10% and imagine the diagnostic test for that disease is 80% accurate. If a patient has a positive test result, how likely is it that he has the disease: is it closer to 30% or to 70%? Researchers showed that for a sample of 82 expert physicians, only 31% selected the correct answer (30%). Despite almost daily feedback about how base rates combine with diagnostic test results, experts still chose an incorrect answer. This means even when we address experts, we must not rely entirely on generating gist-based memory. Verbatim memory can save lives.


How do you evaluate whether you are satisfied with what people report they remember from what you say? You have three choices:

1. Accept only verbatim

2. Accept a combination of verbatim and gist

3. Accept only gist

If you work in a courtroom or academia and specialize in topics based on hard facts, it is likely you will seek and accept choice 1. If you work in the corporate world, you’re mostly fond of choice 2. You may become more particular about verbatim if the gist you offer is too similar to the gist your competition offers. If you work in a creative field (fashion, design), you will probably like choice 3; it is useful for people to remember the gist of what you say so when you are no longer in the same room with them, they can continue to create without being too attached to minute details from the past. Always recapitulating the past does not spark originality.

In the PowerPoint study mentioned earlier, there were three coders evaluating participants’ responses on how many slides they remembered. We agreed ahead of time that we would accept choice 2: a combination of verbatim and gist, as long as the gist retained the meaning of a slide. The purpose of the deck was to inform participants of useful techniques when sharing their webcam during a virtual presentation. Some techniques included this kind of advice: “Don’t wear white; it glows, and it becomes the most noticeable thing on the screen.” “Don’t wear bright reds; they are distracting.” “Don’t wear stripes because they dance around the screen.” “Don’t wear black; it is harsh and sucks up all the light.” Participants’ answers that simply reported “Don’t wear white, black, red, or stripes” were considered correct because they got the gist of what not to do. However, here are examples of empty gist memory that is too fuzzy: “Wow, I just went blank. I remember what the presentation looked like and that I thought the information was useful and applicable to what I do and that I thought the slides were well done because there wasn’t a lot of text on each slide, but I cannot recall any specific message.”

This is not to say that a level of .9 fuzzy is worse than a .2 level of fuzzy. It is a matter of what you consider appropriate for your audience ahead of time. For example, I’ve worked with executives who said firmly: “I don’t care what the audience extracts from my message, as long as they come back to hear me speak next time.” A .9 fuzzy message may still lead to action.

Gist also leads to familiarity, which can lead to decisions. It is possible for people not to remember anything verbatim, but the exposure creates familiarity with us, the stimulus. The “exposure effect” makes it so that the more we are exposed to a stimulus, the more we prefer it, assuming it does not move us away from what we consider rewarding. Familiarity is a strong decision driver. For example, when people are asked to pick a face in the crowd that they consider most appealing, they tend to pick faces that are composed of all other faces (this is called the “beauty-in-averageness effect”). Think about the Save icon in many programs you’re using. Even though it is such an antiquated visual, it’s tough to move away from it because it has been familiar for so long.

I remember an executive from a telecom company who wanted to inspire his employees to “be at the heart of the revolution” (meaning the next phase of enhancements in telecom). His presentation had 14 points. We agreed it would be hard to control how much people would remember from the 14 points. So we focused on three items: (1) the verbatim phrase “be at the heart of the revolution,” which was important to the executive; (2) where to find the 14 points after the presentation; and (3) a sense of familiarity (gist) that there are a lot of cool things happening in the field. When looking at it from this perspective, even the most complex content does not have to be daunting where memory is concerned.

Reflecting on your own content, ponder this: What is your 10% message for your next communication? Should your audience be able to repeat it verbatim or just get the gist? And if just the gist, what degree of fuzzy will work in your favor? Is a sense of familiarity sufficient for people to come back and interact with your content again in the future?

Verbatim memory is more easily accessible immediately after viewing a stimulus, while gist is more accessible after a longer time. It is then important to ask: When do we expect our audiences to make decisions on something important to us? Immediately after we talk to them or in a few days? The answer will determine whether we repeat specific details (and fewer of them) or share general information but stay on the surface.


In the movie Casablanca, Rick, the protagonist, talks to Ugarte, a member of Casablanca’s criminal underworld who sells exit visas to refugees. Ugarte is desperate for Rick’s attention and admiration but senses something is off. At one point, he asks Rick, “You despise me, don’t you?” And Rick retorts, without even looking up from his work, “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.”

This scene reminds me of a sobering reality. We are not on people’s minds with the intensity or frequency we think we are. However, each time we communicate at Point A, we have the opportunity to impact what happens at Point B. Despite the fact that people forget almost everything we tell them, it is possible to influence the little they do remember and drive a desired action.

What exactly would you like to place in people’s minds? Imagine someone in your audience with a bird on each shoulder. One bird is called Verbatim; the other is called Gist. Which one will survive longer? The one you feed.


✵ The forgetting curve hypothesizes that we lose information over time when we make no effort to retain it. We can lose as much as 90% after a few days.

✵ Unless we take control of the metaphorical 10% message, an audience will remember things at random.

✵ According to fuzzy-trace theory, people form two types of memories: verbatim and gist. Verbatim memories are word-for-word, accurate representations of what we’ve learned in the past. Gist memories include the general meaning of what has happened in the past, and they are less accurate and specific.

✵ Determine what type of memories (verbatim or gist) you would like to place in people’s minds and in what proportions.