Recently, while watching Sing It On, the show which follows groups competing in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, I was exposed to the idea that show order matters. According to the seasoned performers on the show, in a competition where the judges deliberate at the end, it’s best for you to perform at the end, in the 8th, 9th, or 10th slot, because the judges will be more likely to remember you. Getting an early slot, on the other hand, is the kiss of death—you have absolutely no chance of winning.
Seeing this made me wonder if there’s any empirical evidence to back up this theory. In fact (and quite unfortunately), there is. In a recent article in Slate, Karla Starr reviews the research, finding that
The “last is best” effect occurs regardless of the scoring process: whether scores are given at the end of the competition (end-of-sequence judging) or after each performance (step-by-step judging). The power of “serial position effects” to influence a competition’s outcome has been observed in natural settings including Olympic figure skating, Olympic gymnastics, the Queen Elisabeth Music Contest, the World Synchronized Swimming Meet, and a Nebraska state high school gymnastic meet.
For example, in a study of figure-skating results from 1994 to 2004, the last to perform had a 14 percent chance of winning, compared to a 3 percent chance of winning for the first performers. This suggests that simply going last can increase your chance of winning by almost a factor of five!
As Starr notes,
Unfortunately, competitions routinely reinforce the serial-position-effect bias. In figure skating, the order of the second-round performances is decided by score, with those in the lead going last. A more reasonable alternative would be to randomize the order in the first round of performances, and then reverse that order in the second round.
In any case, there are several different things we can take from this. First, if you’re sharing the stage with other people (particularly if you’re competing with them), it will obviously benefit you to go last, because the audience will be more likely to remember what you said.
Beyond that, however, the show order effect has implications for organizing all of your presentations, regardless of when they’re going to be presented. While it’s certainly important to nail your introduction and get your audience hooked before you lose their attention, it’s also important to nail your conclusion, because that’s what you audience will remember most in the end.