Memory studies consistently find that people forget the vast majority of what they read, hear, or see, especially if they are exposed to the information just one time.
One early study by Herman Ebbinghaus, the 19th-century German psychologist who was among the first to examine human memory, found that it takes just a few days for people to forget most of what they learn. Although his pioneering research was conducted more than a century ago, it still rings true for those of us who can never quite remember where we left our car keys.
For optimum sticking power, your messages should be free of three key things: wordiness, jargon, and abstractions. The more a message tries to say—and the more abstractly it tries to say it—the easier it is to forget.
As a general guide, aim for messages that have no more than two commas, contain no more than 30 words, and evoke concrete images.
1. Too many words: Resist the temptation to jam everything you can into a single message—omitting minor details makes sense. If editors will include just two of your quotes in a news story, don’t you want them to choose your two most important messages? If the editor decides to run your fourth- and seventh-most important messages instead, I’d question whether your interview was a success.
2. Technical jargon: Our clients in technical fields—such as scientists, physicians, and engineers—are the worst offenders when it comes to jargon. In fairness, their professional lives are awash in technical gobbledygook, and their office conversations are littered with words rarely used and barely understood by the general public. In this era of information overload, complicated wording will muddle your message and render it easily forgotten.
Even if you think your audience will understand complex terms delivered “in context,” don’t use them (or at least define them if you do). They won’t hear the end of your sentence if they’re still processing the unfamiliar term you uttered at the beginning.
Here, as an example, is an actual quote from a press release:
“The gradualness (oriented primarily towards actual users) of the new Handy Backup is the succession of interfaces. With all the maximal simplicity and refined usability, the new one is designed to look structurally associative to the previous version…”
3. Abstractions: These broad concepts are difficult to visualize. “Justice,” for example, is an abstraction—just try conjuring a vivid image of that word. A more effective message about justice might mention the need to punish thieves who rob old ladies by imprisoning the crooks for 20 years. That type of concrete message is more memorable and therefore works better for media messaging than an abstract one would.
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the excellent book “Made to Stick,” write that “trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.”
The goal of most communication is to move an audience from lack of awareness to awareness to action. The more unburdened your messages, the more likely you are to achieve that goal.
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. This adapted excerpt comes from Phillips’ book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. A version of it originally appeared on his blog, Mr. Media Training.