From the Lab: Curiosity Primed the Memory

In The Science of Speaking, I note that one of the most effective ways of interesting your audience is to find ways to arouse their curiosity. A recent study at UC Davis, reported by Scientific American, expands on this idea even further, finding that not only will curiosity make it more likely for your audience to pay attention to your message: it will also make it more likely they’ll remember it.

In the study, participants were asked to review a variety of trivia questions and rate how curious they were about the answers. Next, they were presented with a subset of these questions—half that they found interesting, and half that they found uninteresting. Shortly after each question was presented, participants viewed the photograph of a face that was unrelated to the question, and then saw the answer. A little while later, participants were tested to see how well they recalled both the answers, and the faces.

Interestingly, greater curiosity about a question led not only to better recall of the answer to that question, but also better recall of the unrelated picture that preceded it. A follow-up test the next day found the same results: a curious brain is better able to recall not only that which it is curious about, but also unrelated information that’s presented in that curious state. It appears that curiosity primes the brain for learning.

As a speaker, you can use this knowledge to good effect. As you’re crafting your presentations, think of ways you can arouse your audience’s curiosity: the easiest way to do this is simply to ask an interesting questions that your audience doesn’t know the answers to (but will want to). Then, while your audience is in this curious state, you can present your key points either as the answers to these questions (this is probably the ideal way to do it), or at the very least, before the answers are revealed. This way, your audience will be primed for learning, and more likely to remember what you want them to.

From the Lab: Put Away Your Phone (Redux)

Previously, I’ve written about the negative effects of cell phones on interpersonal communication, and advised that while speaking, you should put your phone away.

According to a new study at UT Austin, there are even more reasons to do this: in addition to harming relationship quality, trust, and empathy, having your cell phone nearby can reduce working memory and intelligence.

The following graphs illustrate the effect. Compared to having your cell phone in the other room, simply having it on the desk in front of you can reduce your working memory capacity by an astounding 10%, and your fluid intelligence by 5%. In the case of working memory, just having your phone in your pocket or bag can have a significant negative effect as well (though in the case of intelligence, the effect is no longer significant). So whenever you’re presenting (or doing anything important), be sure to put that phone away!

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.

From the Lab: The Power of Pre-Questions

In a recent study by Shana Carpenter and Alexander Toftness, reported by The Science of Us, they found that when people were asked a question about the topic of a video before they watched the video, they remembered significantly more about the video than people who weren’t asked a question.

Interestingly, this memory-enhancing effect applied not only to the information that answered the question—it applied to all of the information presented in the video.* This gives further support to the idea of using a question as a hook for your speech, or perhaps even structuring your entire speech around a series of questions, as Matt Abrahams proposes in Speaking Up without Freaking Out.

One thing to note about about this research is that it involved participants actually answering the pre-questions (i.e., they were real questions, not rhetorical questions). Whether rhetorical questions would have the same effect remains to be seen.

* This is in contrast to what happens in writing. Prior research has found that when written text is preceded by a question, the question enhances memory of information that answers the question, but impairs memory of information that doesn’t answer the question. This is because the reader selectively searches (i.e., skims) the text for the answer, something that’s harder to do with a video or a speech.

From the Lab: Close Your Eyes

At several points in The Science of Speaking, I talk about power of asking your audience to imagine something. Often, when speakers use this strategy, they will ask their audience to close their eyes.

The results of a 2008 study by Perfect, et al., confirm that this common approach is a good one: when witnesses in the study were asked to close their eyes, they remembered significantly more details—both visual and auditory—compared to witnesses who had their eyes open. This is particularly relevant if you’re asking the audience to imagine something that has already happened (“Imagine a time in the past when you …”), but it likely applies to imagining the future as well (“Imagine a future in which …”).

Another potential application of this technique is in visualization. As I note in the book, the more vividly you can visualize yourself giving a successful speech, the less nervous you will feel about it. This study suggests that to do this most effectively, you should close your eyes when you visualize.

From the Lab: The Power of Titles

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about Michael Alley’s “assertion evidence approach” for titling visual aids, noting that having good titles for your visuals can significantly increase what your audience understands and remembers.

Recently, I came across a great example of this. First, let’s see what you make of this paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

If you’re anything like the participants in a 1972 study by John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, this paragraph probably doesn’t make much sense. And if you were asked about it a few minutes from now, you probably wouldn’t remember much about it.

But what if I told you that the title of the paragraph above was “Washing clothes is simple and essential”?

Now, doesn’t everything immediately make sense? What Bransford and Johnson found was that when context was provided upfront, participants were much more likely to understand and remember what they read. (Interestingly, if the context was provided afterward, it didn’t help at all.)

Of course, it has to be a good title: adding a generic title that said “The Procedure” wouldn’t help. Which is exactly what the assertion-evidence approach is all about: rather than titling your slide “Results,” it says, you should put the results right in the title!

Note: Of course, this is only half of the process: after you come up with a good title, you’ll want to find visual evidence to support your assertion, rather than simple presenting a block of text!

In the News: The Mind Palace

Today in Tech Times, Katrina Pascual reports on a new study about memory, published just yesterday in Neuron. In the study, researchers used fMRI to assess the brains of 23 of the world’s most successful memory athletes and matched controls. What they found was that the memory athletes had increased connectivity in their brain compared to the control participants, which is an interesting finding in itself.

The coolest part of the study, however, was that they then gave the control participants 6 weeks of memory training, teaching them to use mnemonic techniques like the Mind Palace, in which you remember something spatial (like a palace) and associate the things you need to remember with locations in the palace. After training, the control participants brains showed increased connectivity in the same areas as the memory athletes, demonstrating that memory is an ability that can be learned.

All of this is awesome, but how does it relate to The Science of Speaking? In the context of speaking, memory is key, for both the speaker and the audience. When you give a speech, you want your audience to remember as much of your speech as they can so that they can effectively apply it—but even before that, you want to remember as much of your speech as you can so that you can effectively present it!

The Mind Palace technique can help with both of these goals. In The Science of Speaking, I present a variety of strategies for making your points stick, one of which is extended metaphor. This is very similar to the Mind Palace technique: when you use extended metaphor to package your points, you’re attaching each point to a different part of the metaphor, just as you attach points to locations in the palace. The audience is more likely to remember the metaphor, which then makes them more likely to remember each of your points as they remember each part of the metaphor. Of course, as I note in the book, this benefit isn’t only for the audience: when you make your points easier for the audience to remember, they’ll also be easier for you as the speaker to remember, making your job much less stressful!

In the News: The Power of Repetition

Today on Wired, Emily Dreyfus writes about the power of repetition.

Want to make a lie seem true? Say it again. And again. And again.

Now, I’m all about telling your audience the truth, but the basic principle applies to the truth too.

Dreyfuss cites the example of HeadOn (“apply directly to the forehead!”). Anyone who has seen the ad remembers it. And indeed, the ad was specifically designed to take advantage of the memory effects of repetition. And it worked, greatly increasing sales.

But there’s something else to keep in mind about repetition. Too much of it (like that HeadOn ad) can quickly get annoying.

In The Science of Speaking, I note that while studies have shown that the audience’s recall of a message increases with repetition, they have also shown that agreement with a message peaks at three repetitions. (Which is exactly how many times HeadOn’s slogan was repeated in the ad, by the way. But its ubiquity on TV meant that each viewer heard it far more times than that.) Too much repetition is simply annoying.

So in the end, I’d advise that if you want the audience to remember and agree with your message (and not want to smash your face in), say it again, and again, but not again.

Three times, as they say, is the charm.

In the News: Understand to Remember (Updated)

In a recent post on Quora, republished by Inc., Denis Matei explains Elon Musk’s strategy for remembering things. In simple terms:

Don’t try to remember, but try to understand; when you understand, you will remember automatically.

This is an important insight for speakers, relevant to both the speaker’s memory and the audience’s.

In our classes at Stanford, we require our students to speak without notes. At the beginning of the quarter, our students often wonder how this is even possible: how can you speak eloquently without a script? Musk and Matei’s insight sheds some light on this. When you truly understand what you want to say, you can easily speak without a script because your brain naturally creates the words on the fly. On the other hand, if you don’t understand exactly what you want to say, it will be extremely difficult to come up with the words.

This insight is also relevant to the other side of speaking, i.e., the audience’s. If you can get the audience to truly understand what you’re trying to say, they’ll have no problem remembering the key points. But if they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, there’s no chance they’ll take away anything of value.

While it’s important to think about how you’re going to remember what to say, and how you’re going to get the audience to remember what you said, it’s even more important to make sure you understand what you’re trying to say, and that you get the audience to understand it as well. Where there is understanding, memory will follow.

In addition to this major insight, there are a few other tie-ins to The Science of Speaking in Matei’s post.

First, the importance of first principles. In the context of speaking, this means giving your audience enough background information to understand what you’re talking about. In Musk’s words:

Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Second, the effectiveness of analogies. To further improve your understanding, Musk suggests asking “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?” The answers to these questions will generate potential analogies that can help you and your audience understand your topic.

Update (2/12/17): Tech in Asia has turned these ideas into a video, which highlights another connection to The Science of Speaking.

One useful technique for deconstructing these big ideas is to look at contrasting cases. Suppose we want to deconstruct the letter “J.” What makes a “J” a J? We could approach this in two ways. One, look at contrasting cases—a combination of different J fonts. Or two, look at the same cases. That is, study the same “J” over and over again. The first approach is better. Because once we identify the common characteristics of all “J”s, we can create our own versions of the letter. Understanding concepts thoroughly then helps us apply our knowledge.

This sounds a lot like the overarching philosophy of The Science of Speaking, which is to help you understand the fundamentals of effective speaking in order to help you create your own unique style of effective speaking.