How to structure a presentation your audience will actually remember

Poll Everywhere welcomes Dr. Carmen Simon as the guest author of this post on presentation structure and how it affects memory. Dr. Simon is a cognitive scientist, a leader in the virtual presentation movement, and an internationally renowned public speaker. She’s also a founder of Memzy, a worldwide presentation consulting firm. For more on the science behind effective presentations, see her post on creating a better PowerPoint.

We ran a poll asking whether after two days, someone would remember the beginning or ending of a presentation.

Out of 272 responses, 54% chose the beginning, and 46% favored the ending. The two numbers indicate a close debate. We can settle the ambiguity by consulting experimental research findings.

In scientific research on memory, the question about the impact of “firsts” and “lasts” is called the serial position effect.

The most frequent conclusion you may have heard is that people tend to remember items at the beginning of a series (primacy effects) and the end (recency effects).

The typical explanation for primacy and recency effects is that first and last items in a list, when analyzed globally, do not have “neighbors” (the beginning to the left and the ending to the right); their sheer positioning makes them more distinct than middle items, and as a result they receive more attention, which increases recall.

Do we remember the beginning or end of a presentation?

There are situations when either the beginning or the ending is more memorable.

Where presentations are concerned, these situations depend on length and delivery speed, as well as the presence of highly contrasting materials. It’s important to understand the difference between short-term and long-term memory when comparing recall for beginnings and endings.

“Short-term memory lasts for an average of 30 seconds, and holds up to 4 perceptual items for novices and roughly 9 for experts.” – Dr. Carmen Simon

If you showed an audience 40 slides for a few seconds each, and then tested their recall immediately, they are likely to remember a few slides from the beginning and a few from the end. So, if your presentation structure is super short, the beginning and ending can have an equal chance of being remembered immediately afterwards.

This is important to know because if your audience must make a decision about your product or idea shortly after your presentation, you must prepare the beginning and ending equally well.

How to create memorable beginnings and endings

Long-term memory lasts for hours, days, or even a lifetime, and can hold unlimited information.

If your presentation structure is long, several things can happen that result either in a primacy or recency effect. Primacy is often prevalent. One of the explanations is that your audience pays less and less attention as the presentation progresses, which is what makes the beginning stand out.

Audiences may lose attention because they get bored or assume you may be presenting the important information first. Items that appear first also receive more rehearsal time – people have time to reflect on them during the rest of a presentation – whereas the last items have a shorter retention interval.

Sometimes endings are forgotten because of fatigue.

Consider a study that analyzed the recall rate of commercials broadcast during the Super Bowl. Researchers discovered that commercials presented during the first batch of ads were remembered significantly better than commercials displayed in the middle or at the end of the program.

Since alcohol and tedium that may occur during a football game are likely to interfere with a study, other scientists replicated the research in lab conditions, and asked subjects to view 15 commercials. A test for long-term memory showed that primacy effect held strong, while the recency effect faded.

You can obtain a recency effect when you intersperse distractor activities throughout a long presentation.

For example, if you are selling a product, you can break up a PowerPoint presentation with a few demos or a Q&A, and then return to slides. Each media transition resets the formal “beginning and ending.” You will have multiple beginnings and endings.

In this situation, ensure that the beginning and ending of the last segment are strong because they are likely to be recalled better (particularly the ending, after you use the words “In conclusion”).

When you need to “hide” bad news in a presentation…

Ultimately, why are beginnings and endings important? They matter when you want to leave an audience with a good impression or enable them to make a decision quickly.

Imagine you’re having a performance review with your boss. For the past few months, you’ve had a long list of fine accomplishments, and one failed project. How do you structure this presentation so the boss retains a favorable impression of you?

Primacy tends to win over recency in social judgment. In the process of accumulating information about you, your boss is likely to make a spontaneous judgment early on, and may disregard later information. If you start with the misdeed first, and want to minimize the primacy effect, you must subtly remind the boss about his accountability for performance reviews.

This way, the boss is more inclined to listen to all pieces of information and make a judgment at the end. You must also request an impression judgment after exposure to each bit of information (“How does this successful/failure impact my performance?”), instead of presenting them all at once and waiting for a final verdict.

This way, each piece of information has an equal chance of being evaluated instead of the negative element anchoring all the other components. Leaving the misdeed for the end only works if the presentation is fairly long and the misdeed is not major.

Read more: 5 cool presentation ideas using audience interaction

On the importance of diversity within a presentation

Overall, presentation structure isn’t merely the sum of separate components assembled together. Sequence matters. This is confirmed by examining how judges make an impression of court cases.

In many contexts, primacy rules: including positive elements in the beginning minimizes the weight of negative elements delivered later, and initial negative items lessen positive ones presented afterward.

In some other contexts, it is the last witness who shifts the verdict. This recency effect typically happens when the last testimony is a personal testimony (versus cases in which judges simply read information instead of hearing a human speak).

“If the ending is critical in your presentations and must be remembered, consider including a human component (versus a technical or abstract element).” – Dr. Carmen Simon

Ultimately, recall is impacted by inconsistency or a deviation from the pattern. An audience will remember the ending more if it is highly inconsistent with the rest of the presentation. This is because distinctiveness can only be judged relative to the number of items you have shown an audience.

Some rules of thumb when structuring your presentation:

  • If your presentation is super short, the beginning and ending can have an equal chance of being remembered immediately afterwards.
  • If your presentation is long, the beginning is usually remembered most clearly. This happens for a variety of reasons including listener fatigue.
  • If your presentation is long, but you want to people to remember more than just the beginning, you can intersperse distractor activities (Q&A, live demo, video) throughout.
  • Ultimately, recall is impacted by inconsistency or a deviation from the pattern. An audience will remember the ending more if it is highly inconsistent with the rest of the presentation.

More presentation science from Dr. Simon: