Mind & Body

To Get Your Point Across, Use the Serial Positioning Effect

Memory is a funny thing. Like that office party last weekend. We remember when they wheeled in the chocolate fountain at the beginning. And we remember seeing all of the staplers encased in chocolate at the end. But the middle is kind of hazy. Actually, it turns out memory pretty much always works like that, and you don't even have to get written up for misuse of office supplies to prove it. Better yet, we might even be able to use it at our next job interview.

First Impressions, Last Impressions

It's called the serial positioning effect, and it's one of the best-documented quirks of the human brain. Basically, it boils down to something quite simple. For any given experience, people remember two parts the best: the beginning and the end.

We've known about this for a while. It was first described by psychologist B.B. Murdock — in 1962. In his experiment, he challenged his subjects to memorize a list that ranged from 10 to 40 words. The pattern was unmistakable. In 20-word lists, for example, the first word would be remembered with over 50 percent accuracy, while the 20th would come in around 75 percent. But it dropped off fast. No words between the 4th to the 16th cracked the 25 percent mark, making the whole chart look like a jagged Jack-o-Lantern smile.

Murdock attributed this pattern to the two types of memory: long-term and short-term. Those words from the beginning? They get slotted into the long-term memory bucket since we have the time to chew them over and mark them as significant. And the words at the end get the benefit of recency — we don't need to dwell on them because they're still fresh in our short-term memory. The thing is that short-term memories tend to push other short-term memories out, so those middle words get the short end of the stick.

Making Memory Work for You

But how can you use this knowledge for fun and profit? We're so glad you asked. Let's say you've got a big presentation coming up and you want to make sure your audience retains your key points days and weeks later. You might be tempted to open on a humorous, if only tangentially related, anecdote to grab their attention. That might work as far as attention-grabbing goes, but it'll only work against you when it comes to retention.

That's because your audience will remember that funny story — but they won't remember what it has to do with what you were trying to tell them. It's much better to start with your key points before bringing in the supporting arguments and amusing tangents. And then when you get to the end, bring it all back around again.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas December 27, 2017

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