Off the Shelf: Stories > Statistics

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of an experiment that Chip runs in his classes at Stanford. Students are asked to give a one-minute persuasive speech, after which their classmates rate the speaker’s delivery. Then Chip distracts them with a short video clip.

When the clip is over, Chip asks the students to write down, for each speaker, everything they remember about the speech. Here are the results, according to Chip:

The students are flabbergasted at how little they remember. Keep in mind that only ten minutes have elapsed since the speeches were given. Nor was there a huge volume of information to begin with—at most, they’ve heard eight one-minute speeches. And yet the students are lucky to recall one or two ideas from each speaker’s presentation. Many draw a complete blank on some speeches—unable to remember a single concept.

 

In the average one-minute speech, the typical student uses 2.5 statistics. Only one student in ten tells a story. Those are the speaking statistics. The “remembering” statistics, on the other hand, are almost a mirror image: when students are asked to recall the speeches, 63 percent remember the stories. Only 5 percent remember any individual statistic.

 

Furthermore, almost no correlation emerges between “speaking talent” and the ability to make ideas stick. The people who were captivating speakers typically do no better than others in making their ideas stick.

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

First, it’s essential to remember the iceberg. While the advice to think about what you want the audience to remember in terms of a tweet of 140 characters or less may seem extreme, this exercise shows that this is simply the way things are: your audience will remember at most one or two ideas from your presentation—if you’re lucky.

Fortunately, there are ways you can make your own luck by specifically designing your ideas to be sticky, in this case by presenting them using stories, not statistics. Rather than leaving it to chance what your audience remembers, you can (and should) consciously choose what you want them to take away, then design your presentation specifically to make that happen.

Finally, although good delivery can certainly help you, it’s not the only way to success, and it’s not enough by itself—memorable content is also essential.

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