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How to Craft Presentations that Beat the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Our brains aren't wired to remember long presentations, so here's how to design ones that stick.



Forgettability is deadly to presentations. Your goal as a presenter is to move your audience into acting, thinking, or feeling a certain way – but if your presentation isn’t memorable, all your hard work will go out the window. Of course, you can’t expect your audience to remember every single word you say, but if you incorporate the right techniques into your presentation, you can counter a phenomenon known as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who conducted a seminal experiment on his own memory in 1885. By studying a series of random syllables and tracking how much of it he forgot over various time periods, he developed a mathematical formula called the forgetting curve. He had forgotten nearly 50% of the information after 20 minutes and nearly 75% after one day. Though the forgetting curve varies based on the information learned, on average we remember frighteningly little of what we try to learn.

That’s why it’s important to design your presentation to be as memorable as possible. Use the strategies below to beat the curve.


Step 1: Repetition


Ebbinghaus found that revisiting prior knowledge (also known as spaced learning) is the best way to beat the forgetting curve. When information is built upon things we’ve already learned, it’s easier to remember. That’s why repeating key takeaways throughout your presentation is crucial to ensuring that your audience understands your message. Here are a few ways to utilize repetition:


Use a roadmap

In your introduction, establish your key takeaways by giving your audience a preview of the presentation to come. As you flesh out each takeaway with supporting evidence, the audience will associate the points on your roadmap with the information you share.

Gray out key points on your slides

Use your roadmap to transition between topics by highlighting your current topic and leaving the others in gray font. This allows the audience to focus on which takeaway will be repeated while also reminding them of the ones you’ve already covered. Here’s a sample slide:


In this example, your eye is drawn to the green graphic, but you can still see what topics are coming up next. You shouldn’t include your roadmap on every slide, but this format works well for section headers.


Finish strong

Though your conclusion should do more than just summarize your presentation, it’s still essential that you draw clear connections between your key takeaways and your broader presentation. The conclusion is your last and possibly best chance to repeat your message thanks to a phenomenon called the recency bias, which states that we tend to remember recent events better than earlier ones. Use techniques like mnemonic devices and micro-scripts – or short mottos – to make your conclusion extra memorable.


Step 2: Make it Matter


Neuroscience research indicates that we remember information better when it’s relevant to us. That’s why presentations can’t be given in a vacuum: whether you’re informing, persuading, or inspiring your audience, you’re telling them something you think will affect them. Connect your message to their lives and behavior so that they have incentive to remember your presentation. You can accomplish this by keeping these things in mind:


State the “why” upfront

Your opening should tell the audience not just what they can expect from your presentation, but why they should listen. This is where your hook comes in handy: whether you open with an anecdote, surprising statistic, or hypothetical question, you’re more likely to grab their attention if you make it about them.


Don’t just state the facts

Never assume your presentation’s subject matter speaks for itself. Imagine you work for an animal conservation nonprofit, and you’re attempting to persuade an audience to donate to save a particular species. Sure, you can show them cute pictures of the animals and explain how your nonprofit will use those donations, but the audience also wants to know how that animal’s survival impacts them. Maybe the species plays an important part in controlling pest populations, or its extinction will contribute to global warming. Emphasizing the consequences of the audience’s (in)action draws a clear line between your topic and their lives.


Use personal stories

Personal stories are often the most universal. If you have one that’s relevant to your presentation, share it! Not only does it make you more credible, but it also connects the presentation’s concepts to real-life situations that may be relatable to your audience.


Connect your message to your audience's lives and behavior so that they have incentive to remember your presentation.

Step 3: Get the Audience Involved


Interactive learning beats traditional lectures any day. Activities that require the audience to actively think about the concepts rather than absorb them are more likely to stick in their minds. Your presentation likely won’t have the same kind of interactivity as, say, a workshop, but you can incorporate many of the same strategies to wake your audience up. Here are some examples:


Check-ins

It’s a small gesture, but asking the audience if they’re following the presentation before transitioning to the next topic keeps them alert and gives you a chance to clarify any confusion.


Poll the audience

If you want a concept to really hit home, ask the audience a question that starts with “Raise your hand if…” Not only do they need to think about whether the question applies to them, but they also need to physically move their hand. The more body movement involved, the better; it’s been shown to aid memory!


Hold a Q&A session

Question-and-answer sessions are arguably your best tool for interacting with audiences during a presentation. They’re the perfect opportunity to address audiences’ concerns and repeat key takeaways, and you can use that time to elaborate on why your message matters.


Final Thoughts


By using these strategies, your presentation will make an impact that defies the forgetting curve. For more tips on how to craft the perfect presentation, check out The Power of Presentation, Tommy Re's guidebook for all your business presentation needs. We can also create custom learning experiences to teach you or your team how to design and deliver presentations.

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