“Memory is a crazy woman that hoards coloured rags and throws away food”… Austin O’Malley
Experimental psychologist A.D. Baddeley demonstrated in his research that people generally recall a series of short words better than they recall a series of long words. As early as 1965 it was demonstrated that retention of spoken information in the short term, or working, memory peaks at about fifteen seconds. Waugh and Norman, writing in the Psychological Review, established that retention falls off dramatically after the fifteen second barrier.
Short words rather than long words included in short sentences rather than sentences longer than fifteen seconds assist your listeners to work within the confines of their working memories, and long sentences crammed with multi-syllable and unfamiliar words, perhaps accompanied by qualifications and subordinate clauses that, if people haven’t given you their fullest attention, and let’s face it they often don’t, will lead to confusion and indeed loss of meaning, probably about half way through, can turn an address into a kind of into a marathon requiring the cognitive endurance of a mensa candidate and ultimately everyone including yourself will probably have forgotten the starting point of the idea you sought to express (if, incidentally, there was one in the first place) before they ever reach the end of your verbal onslaught. Of course you get the point, don’t you?
The most glaringly obvious verbal onslaughts are usually contained in written speeches. A point well worth remembering when you initially write out a speech or address is to use the written word purely as a phonetic representation of spoken language. In other words, do write as you speak and avoid writing content that makes you speak as you write.
When writing any part of a verbal presentation bear in mind that people do not generally speak in sentences: they speak in sense bursts. In oral communication, people process words in chunks or phrases. Pick up a book of well-written poetry and notice how it’s set out. Good, conventional poetry is far closer in style to spoken language than a lot of the stodge that professional speechwriters churn out.
Memorable presentations are ones that allow listener/s to process your information and build a memory picture or cognitive map as they go along. In speaking for maximum conformity to how a person’s working memory works, select from the following guidelines:
1. Make your language simple, clear, precise, and make sure you use concrete words. The majority of your listeners need concrete words, and plenty of verbs, to understand your content.
2. Don’t use pollie-speak, bureaucratese, moneyspeak or any of the other gobbeldygook languages. You don’t need to inflate your intellectual vanity by telling your audience you know how to speak like a pointy-head.
3. Convert specialist acronyms and shorthand descriptions into clear, unambiguous language. Eg. Instead of CPI, call it the Cost of Living.
4. Contain one idea per sentence. Long sentences with subordinate or dependent clauses are for books, magazine, and newspapers, not spoken language.
5. If you’re into purple prose, go and get de-purpled. Be careful and economical with adjectives and flowery language. Be unique, yes, but try not to be pompous.
6. Use active voice and tense when you wish to get people really involved in your content. Use the passive voice and tense when you want your listeners to be detached observers of some experience. Too much usage of passive voice however can result in an audience becoming lethargic and disinterested.
7. Build your argument logically. Use illustrations and visual imagery to connect point to point.
8. Use metaphors, as they are a short way for your listener to understand often complex ideas. Don’t mix your metaphors or you may find yourself up a tree without a paddle!
9. Be careful with tautologies, like “new initiative” “lone individual” and other sillinesses because they direct your listener’s attention away from your argument.
10. Build in suspense, questions, and cliff-hangers to invoke curiosity and active listening.
Further work in the field of information retention has shown that people sub-vocalise information. Sub-vocalisation describes self-talk and creating matching visual imagery in a process of silently rehearsing and reviewing information inside your head. It’s been found that sub-vocalisation is critical to transferring information from the short-term, or working memory, to the long-term memory.
The upshot of this research is that if you wish your audience to retain and be able to remember key points of your presentation you would be well advised to make fewer, shorter points, preferably linked to an already established theme. This facilitates easier sub-vocalisation and helps your audience build comfortably on your previous points.
Another effective technique is the use of concrete language to great visual storylines as you speak. Aim to make your speeches experiences that draw on all of the senses. Evoke through your words smells, sounds, pictures, tastes and feelings, creating a multimedia theatre of the mind. In other words, make the rags vivid attractions in a sparser landscape.
(c) desmond Guilfoyle 2006