From the Lab: What Story Will You Tell?

In a previous blog post, we saw that the inclusion of a descriptive title can greatly improve your audience’s ability to understand and remember what you’re trying to say. Despite the fact that the description clearly described “the procedure” in question, it wasn’t until the actual title of the procedure was known that everything actually came together and made sense. (I won’t spoil the surprise here—you should be able to experience it yourself.)

Today, we’ll see that organization—in particular, stream of thought—functions in a similar way. In a classic study at Stanford University, Perry Thorndyke found that the order in which information is presented can have a major impact on how it is understood and remembered.

In the study, participants were presented with a variety of passages to read, each with a different stream of thought. In the first condition, the information was presented in story form, with the theme of the story clearly defined at the beginning. In the second condition, the theme of the story was presented at the end. In the third condition, the theme of the story was absent. And in the fourth condition, the information was simply described without setting it in a narrative context. In one final twist, each condition was presented either in order or with the sentences mixed up at random.

The two graphs below reveal the results:

In terms of both comprehension and recall, a story with its theme presented up front was best, followed by a story with its theme presented at the end, followed by a story with no theme, followed by a description, followed by randomized sentences.

There are several things we can take away from this as presenters.

First, stream of thought is important. When the information was presented chronologically, it was significantly more understandable and memorable than when it was presented as a description—or in a random order. And while this study looked at the chronological stream of thought in particular, I suspect that these findings will generalize, at least somewhat, to other logical streams of thought. After all, every logical stream of thought will tell a compelling story, even if it’s not a chronological one. As I note in The Science of Speaking, “it’s not so important which logical progression you use, so much as that you have some form of logical progression that moves us from one point to the next.”

Second, it’s important to have a main theme—and to present that main theme up front. As we saw above, a story with its theme presented up front was better than a story with its theme presented at the end, which was better than a story with no theme. In the context of speaking, this theme is your thesis—the one thing that’s most important for your audience to remember. And while some people think that presenting their thesis up front will “spoil the surprise,” and opt to reveal their main point only at the end of their speech, this study suggests that your audience will be significantly more likely to understand and remember what you have to say if you let your audience in on your main point right from the beginning.

There’s one final piece of advice that we can draw from this study. In addition to testing participants’ comprehension and recall of the story as a whole, Thorndyke also tested their recall of particular aspects of the story, depending on how central they were to the story—was it an essential part of the big picture, or was it simply a nitty-gritty detail? The results are presented in the graph below.

There are several things we can take away from this graph.

First, it reconfirms that for all levels of the organizational hierarchy, from the big picture down to the nitty-gritty details, a logical stream of thought makes everything more memorable.

Furthermore, it goes on to show exactly the pattern of remembering we want to see: when the information is presented with a logical stream of thought, participants remembered 90% of the big picture elements, around 70% of the of the second-order points, about 60% of the third-order points, and about 45% of the nitty-gritty details. (While it would be nice to have 90% recall of everything, that’s simply not going to happen, so the best case scenario is greater recall for the points that are most important—exactly the pattern we see here.) When the information lacks a logical stream of thought, however, this desirable pattern completely disappears. Instead, we see around 40 to 50% recall of all points, regardless of their importance. Say your ultimate goal is to get your audience to remember your thesis and three main points. Unless you have a logical stream of thought, this means that your audience will be just as likely to remember four totally random points as they will be to remember the four points you want them to.

In conclusion, a logical stream of thought is essential. Not only does it improve comprehension and recall of all your points, it especially increases recall of your main points without reducing recall of the nitty-gritty details. Regardless of what kind of stream of thought you choose, always make sure that you have one, and design it so that it leads the audience to remember what you want them too. Otherwise, you’ll simply be leaving it to chance—and not just any chance, but chance that’s lower across the board.

Leave a Reply