Events & Red Carpet

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Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Pinnacle Performance Company   Volume 3 Issue 1

Between a Rock and a Hard Place 

Primacy, Recency, and the Importance of Sequence

With the conclusion of 2011 and the arrival of the next year, Red Carpet thinks this is an appropriate time to talk about endings and beginnings and why they are important. Surely we've all heard the maxims and imperatives surrounding the bookends of presentations: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." "Finish strong!" Why is the largest portion of presentations, the 80% in the middle, so neglected by conventional wisdom? Why does no one ever tell you to "Make the middle count!"?  


Perhaps there's just a shortage of pithy sayings, but there are also psychological reasons why this may be. Red Carpet kicks off the new year devoted to the concepts of primacy and recency and why they are important for communicators to remember.


In the late 19th century, German experimental psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published On Memory, a collection of his research on cognitive retention. In the book he details what he describes as the serial position effect, or how the recollection of data depends upon the position of the data in a sequence. Try the experiment below:


1)      Study the list below for 15 seconds.

2)      Without referring to the list, write the words you remember on a 
         separate sheet of paper.

3)      Once you've written all you can, continue reading.















If you are like most people, the first few words on the list came with ease, the middle section was a little spotty, and the final two or three you recalled with no difficulty. If this was the case you have demonstrated Ebbinghaus' theory of the primacy and recency. Observers and audiences are more likely to remember items and moments that bookend a given data set or experience. How can we make use of these theories when presenting?


Synchronize content with primacy/recency. Ensure your critical points have a significant, unhampered presence near the front and back ends of your presentation. Combine this with other spotlighting techniques and your audience stands no chance of forgetting your key message elements.


Counteract the intermediate effect. Since retention is significantly reduced in the middle 40%, choose stronger, more active intentions to engage you audience. Make more liberal use of stories and other content texturizers to provide your audience with more memory points. Prioritize your messages and place the least important in the middle of your content sandwich.


Reduce distractors. Ebbinghaus notes that the introduction of distractions (Red Carpet's looking at you, PowerPoint) severely impacts primacy and recency. Don't sabotage yourself with unneeded areas of focus (see Red Carpet Volume 2, Issue 4, available in the archives).


Understanding the science behind first and last impressions will help make us superior communicators and allow us to better shape our content and influence our audiences.


Now, if only Red Carpet could shed those holiday pounds...

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