New scientific research on memory

by Olivia Mitchell

I love having scientific back-up for the way we do things as presenters. So I subscribe to a number of cognitive science blogs to keep up-to-date. Here are two research studies on memory. The first one backs up what we already know – we’ve got a great memory for visual detail. And the second has a new twist on the impact of novelty on memory.

1. Don’t use cliched photos

Your audience can instantly recognise photos and images that they’ve seen before. And most people, when they see something they’ve seen before will say to themselves “Seen that before, boring”. That’s not the kind of impact you want.

The research

The people taking part in the research study were shown 2,500 pictures of common objects, like toasters, remote controls and backpacks. They were shown each photo for just a few seconds and asked to try and remember them. They were then shown pairs of images – only one of which they had seen before. These pairs often differed only in little details – like the kind of bread that was sticking out of the toaster. People were astonishingly good at remembering which photo they had seen before – a success rate of almost 90%.

What should you do?

When you’re looking for images, follow these tips:

  1. Stay away from Microsoft clipart – you’re not using that stuff anyway are you?
    Cliched photo
  2. Avoid cliched stock photo images. The Slideology blog has a crusade against cliched images. Check out their examples to ensure you’re not transgressing.
  3. When using photo websites check out how many times an image has been downloaded – if it’s over a few hundred give it a miss.
  4. Steer clear of stock photos with popular models. The people in the business-type photos crop up again and again. Like the gentleman to the right here.
  5. To be sure your audience has never seen a photo before, go out and take the photos yourself.  One of our clients gave presentations to school students to introduce them to the university he represented. He wanted to motivate students to get their accommodation sorted early. Here’s what he did. He pitched a tent just outside the main building of the university and took a photo of himself with his legs sticking out of the tent. He introduced the photo in his presentation by saying: “This is what might happen if you don’t sort out your accommodation”. That slide gets a great laugh from the students.

2. Mix the new in with the old

You probably already know that we remember stuff better if its is novel. What this study shows is that if you mix new and old information, then your audience will not only remember the new information, but also have a better recall of the old information.

The research

In the research study one group of people were shown a set of images they were already familiar with (old images) and a second group were shown a combination of old and new images. The second group were better at remembering all of the images – the old ones too.

What should we do?

This is relevant when you’re presenting information your audience has heard before. There are two situations where this might happen:

  1. Presentations you have to give eg: a presentation on health and safety. To prevent this from being ho-hum mix in new examples.
  2. You’re revising information before going onto the new stuff eg: on a training programme. Start introducing some of the new information as you review the old.
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