What Makes Ideas Memorable

Contrast, Imagery, and Engaging the Audience's

Schema Make Ideas Both "Sticky" and Persuasive

"Memorableness," or "sticky ideas," is one of my main research interests. Design plays a role, but it's even more important to engage the audience's schema, or organized conceptual frameworks. 

Below, I'll expand on how document design and engaging schema make writing more memorable and persuasive (much of this information was adapted from my 2016 article in Technical Communication, "Making Memories: Writing and Designing More Memorable Documents"). 

Designing Memorable Documents

 

To remember something, we must first pay sufficient attention to it. Document design makes a huge difference in what we notice, how much attention we give it, and thus whether we encode it into long-term memory.

Contrast catches attention. We naturally notice things that are distinctive compared to their surroundings. 

Document design can create contrast through bolditalics, and other basic formatting. Color is a very powerful form of contrast. I'll bet the word "color" drew your eye more than anything else on this page. 

Except maybe the image above. Vivid, interesting images also attract attention and prompt people to encode them into memory. Images are especially attention-catching and memorable if they include strong contrast. 

Schema in Frederic Bartlett's Remembering

Rather than recording and storing events, memory is a dynamic process of reconstructing previous events during the act of remembering them. Our reconstructed memories can morph over time and can be influenced by new information without our conscious awareness. 

In his seminal Remembering, Sir Frederic Bartlett first described memory as reconstructive. He recounts several experiments in which he asked subjects to recreate a story, picture, or other stimulus from memory. Invariably, the subjects reconstructed the stimuli without realizing they were excluding, modifying, fixating on, or even fabricating various details.

 

Reconstructive memory resembles imagination, but our reconstructions focus on specific events and details while pure imagination ranges freely. Despite reinterpreting many details, Bartlett's subjects insisted they were recalling what they had originally perceived.

Schema in Elizabeth Loftus' Memory Studies

The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus is a preeminent memory expert. One of her most famous experiments observed a significant difference in subjects’ speed-estimates of cars involved in an accident when the interviewer used the word “smashed” instead of “hit.” Another "misinformation" experiment created false memories of meeting the Warner Bros. character Bugs Bunny on a childhood trip to Disneyland.

These misinformation studies show that our perceptions of events sometimes merge with information learned afterward, leading to a reconstructed memory so unified we cannot distinguish which information came from which source. In other words, we reconstruct memories rather than recall them. 

Engaging the Audience's Schema

When we reconstruct memories, we usually recall the relevant schema, or conceptual frameworks, that help structure our perceptions and thinking. If we alter our schema to incorporate new information, then we encode that information into long-term memory. 

Psychologists widely recognize that a person’s various identities (e.g., husband, father, teacher) combine to form a “social self-schemata,” or a unique memory structure, that influences behavior and thinking. In other words, self-schema are conceptual frameworks about oneself.

In a seminal article, Hazel Markus found that self-schema act like filters for one’s attention by screening incoming stimuli. Non-consciously, our minds ignore the irrelevant so that it doesn't clutter our perceptions and long-term memories while focusing on the relevant so that we can remember it later. 

Document design attracts, directs, and allocates attention, but it doesn't necessarily improve memorableness. Memorable ideas tap into the audience’s self-schema so they ascribe relevance to the information, which in turn motivates their effort to remember it.

I recommend six strategies for engaging the audience's schema or self-schema: 

1) use contrast, color, and imagery to capture and direct attention;

2) convey the information's practical value so that it appears useful, helpful, or relevant to the audience;

3) tap into what the audience already knows, since the familiar is easier to incorporate into existing knowledge and memory;

4) use unexpected elements to create "knowledge-gaps" that arouse curiosity and lead the audience to fill the gap with the new information;

5) make the audience want to share the information with others, since sharing requires remembering; and

6) arouse emotion because strong emotions tend to make information, events, and experiences more memorable.

When information lodges in long-term memory, it can have a lasting impact on the audience's knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Memorable communication is more effective communication. 

Learn More

To learn more about memorable communication, check out a more thorough summary of my article, "Making Memories," or get access to the full article through your library. 

Sign up for my email Newsletter here. You'll get an email about every two weeks with content similar to what you just read. 

For a deeper dive into writing for professional, business, and academic contexts, get my book, "How to Write an Essay like an Equation." You can read the Introduction and Chapter 1 before buying. 

For help figuring out what to believe in the media, get "Become Your Own Fact-Checker." Again, you can read the Introduction and Chapter 1 before buying. 

Contact Eric Sentell:

jamesericsentell@gmail.com

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