Why do people forget our content?
One of the most obvious reasons why people forget our content is information overload. In a survey of 124 managers from various professional fields in Australia, Hong Kong, the U.K., and the U.S., information overload was recognized as a top professional issue; participants confessed they find it impossible to manage information (62%), most content is irrelevant (53%), and they lack time to understand it (32%). In other words, we are drowning in data and barely have time to make sense of it, let alone remember it.
Also known as data smog, analysis paralysis, or information fatigue syndrome, information overload has been at the center of abundant research. Scientists have demonstrated through many experiments that the human brain goes through an initial stage of information processing, ultimately achieving an optimal input volume. Then when information overload occurs, the result is decreased cognitive performance. This means decreased attention span, lack of memory, and poor decision-making.
As I mention in my book Impossible to Ignore, we are left with two choices: decrease the amount of information we share with others, or help them better process information. The latter is more reasonable because it is difficult, if not impossible, to control people’s exposure to information. Reflecting on your own content, consider these techniques:
Determine the most important message that must be remembered long-term
This helps us filter a lot of unnecessary details and therefore decreases content bulk. A frequent mistake communicators make is sharing too many messages because they don’t have time to figure out which one is most important. The result is overload, and scientists agree that individuals’ reaction to information overload is omission (failing to assimilate information) and error (processing information incorrectly). Omission is selective, in the sense that sometimes people omit difficult information even though it may be highly relevant, or pay attention to something minor and therefore misinterpret a message.
If your message is complex, paint a big picture and address smaller components gradually. I often see presenters trying to explain everything all at once, which leads to the two consequences above: omission and error.
Avoid “spicing up” content with multimedia
In an effort to eliminate boredom, communicators often feel that adding multimedia, such as images and videos, will make content more exciting. This is not always the case. Research findings are converging to show us how much extra cognitive pressure the overabundance of multimedia places on people’s ability to process information and remember it. In one study, researchers asked more than one hundred volunteers to watch an online presentation about the country of Mali. Some participants watched a text-only version, while others viewed the text version plus an audiovisual component with additional information presented simultaneously. The text-only group scored significantly better on a quiz about the materials. The multimedia viewers were more likely to agree that they did not learn anything from the presentation. Use “flash” sparingly.
Tie an important message to your audience’s current goal
People tend to pay more attention to what needs to be solved in the immediate future and to what is immediately relevant. The brain system responsible for focusing attention on what counts and ignoring everything else is called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). People are acutely interested in themselves, so when your content offers solutions to personal, nagging issues, their RAS lets you in, regardless of information overload. The old adage “know your audience” needs an update to “deeply know your audience.” The better you use their profile (likes, dislikes, immediate needs and goals), the longer you can keep them paying attention.
Have something interesting to say
The RAS does not distinguish between real events and “synthetic” reality. In other words, if a message is current, relevant, and interesting, the brain will focus. Using strong words that build mental pictures enables the brain to handle an increased load of information. For example, we may think in the age of 10-second commercials, that long, text-based ads are gone. Far from true.
Check out this ad from the Royal Parks Foundation, a charity that helps support London’s eight Royal Parks so everyone can enjoy them. Their headline provokes us:
Is your life more interesting than a squirrel’s?
We cannot help but read on:
You might think it is. But you take the same tube every day. You spend five days a week sitting at your desk, work through lunch, and stay late. You buy the same sandwich day in, day out with the same drink. You make excuses not to see friends on weekends because ‘you’re busy,’ when you’re really just watching TV. Sunday is spent recovering from Saturday and preparing for Monday. It doesn’t sound too exciting, does it?
Learn from the squirrel. His commute is a playful skip through beautiful gardens surrounding vast lakes. His office is some 5,000 acres of striking parkland. He spends time with his family and his only deadline is winter. He eats nuts but not because Nigella says so. His home has historic landscapes alongside beautiful fountains and he doesn’t pay a penny.
Now who’s nuts?
If we count the facts that the ad wanted to emphasize, there are just a few: gardens, lakes, 5,000 acres of parkland, historic landscapes, fountains, free entrance. Out of 139 words, only about 13 of them contain the essence. Yet, it is the other 100+ words that make the ad interesting. Do not sacrifice detail in the name of reducing overload. Elaboration can lead to memory when it activates multiple sensory areas. This is why good storytelling can be so powerful.
If you’d like to learn more about neuroscience and communication, consider attending our June 15, 2016 webinar: AGAIN: The Neuroscience of Repetition.