On the Screen: The Show Order Effect

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.

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.

Off the Shelf: No School on Thursday

Nora Ephron, the writer of When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle tells a great story from her days in school that illustrates one of the most essential principles of communication.

The teacher who changed my life was my journalism teacher, whose name was Charles Simms. … I had already decided that I was going to be a journalist. … But Mr. Simms really inspired my passion for journalism. He got up on the first day of class, went to the blackboard, and wrote “Who, what, where, why, when, and how,” which are the six things that have to be in the lead of any newspaper story. Then he did what most journalism teachers do—he dictated a set of facts to us, and then we were all meant to write the lead that was supposed to have “who, what, where, why, when, and how” in it.


The facts he dictated went something like this: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago.” We all sat at our typewriters and wrote a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, “Anthropologist Margaret Mead and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school, Kenneth L. Peters, announced today.”


We were very proud of ourselves, and we gave the leads to Mr. Simms. He looked at what we had written and tore them into tiny bits and tossed them into the wastebasket. And he said, “The lead to this story is: ‘There will be no school on Thursday.'” It was this great epiphany moment for me about the essence of journalism. I thought, “Oh my God, it is about the point! It is about figuring out what the point is.” And I just fell in love with journalism at that moment. I fell in love with the idea that underneath, if you sifted through enough facts, you could get to the point, and you had to get to the point.

Although this lesson was initially learned in the context of journalism, it also applies to other forms of communication. Too often, a communicators’ main point (what in The Science of Speaking I call the “thesis”) ends up being like Ephron’s classmates’ original leads. While they generally succeed in communicating something, far too often, they miss the point and fail to make a greater impact.

Therefore, whenever you are preparing a speech, make sure that you don’t just present the facts, but that you sift through the facts to get to the point, presenting a clear, concise, relevant thesis.

In the News: The Feynman Technique

In a recent Medium post republished on Quartz, Shane Parrish writes about the Feynman Technique for mastering a subject, inspired by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s way of thinking. According to Parrish, the Feynman Technique has three steps:

Step 1: Teach It to a Child — Think about how you would teach your subject to “an eight-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.” In doing so, Parrish notes, “you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good—it heralds an opportunity to learn.”

Step 2: Review — “Now you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms,” advises Parrish.

Step 3: Organize and Simplify — Once you’ve gained a deeper—and simpler—understanding of your topic, “organize them into a simple story that flows.”

As an optional Step 4, you can Transmit what you’ve learned, actually explaining your subject to an eight-year old (or someone else who doesn’t know anything about your subject). As Parrish notes, “the ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.”

If you’ve read The Science of Speaking, you’ll immediately recognize these ideas from the chapters on technical communication (and organization). I’m including them again here because: a) they’re worth repeating, b) I like how the Feynman Technique organizes them into an elegant framework, a three-step method that’s easy to remember.

I also like the explicit addition of Step 2, which is something I only imply in The Science of Speaking: to teach better, you need to learn better. Which leads us to another important insight: just as I’ve said that it’s not your audience’s responsibility to be interested in your topic, it’s your responsibility to interest them, the same thing holds true for informing them. It’s not the audience’s responsibility to understand your explanation, it’s your responsibility to explain it so they can.