When it comes to proposals and presentations, order matters. In fact, studies have found that even with outstanding, prospect-focused content, changing just its sequence can have profound effects on a prospect’s understanding, recall, and impression of your key messages.
So, in this post we’re discussing the connection between memory and order—and what it means for the structure of your next proposal or presentation.
The Serial Position Effect
When presented with a series of items or pieces of information, which ones do prospects tend to recall? Let’s find out. Take a moment to watch the video below, which entails a series of words flashing on the screen. While watching, try to remember as many words as possible without pausing the video or writing anything down. Seriously, give it a try.
Now take out a pencil and paper and answer each of the following questions without looking back at the video:
1. What were the first five words?
2. What were the last five words?
3. What word appeared more than once?
4. What phrase stood out as different?
Check the bottom of this entry for the answers.
So what does this all mean? Well, if you did better on question one than two, congrats, you’re like most people. It turns out that we’re more likely to remember chunks of information at the beginning of a proposal or presentation (four on average), not the end (one to two on average).
Further, we’re rarely apt to remember any content in the middle—unless it’s presented in an outstanding way or repeated several times (more on how to do this in an upcoming entry). This is a result of what Hermann Ebbinghaus termed the serial position effect, the tendency of people to recall the first and last items best, and the middle items worst.
Everyday Applications: An Example
Industries of all kinds capitalize on the serial position effect when delivering information. From corporate communications and politics to product marketing and online advertising, chances are the serial position effect has already impacted you several times today.
For instance, think of television commercials you’ve seen for prescription drugs. What may come to mind are images of good-looking, middle-aged people joyously biking with friends, sailing a boat, or sitting in a claw-foot bathtub on a lush green hillside (we never understood that one).
But meanwhile, notice the order of information provided by these commercials. They nearly always start by identifying an ailment and highlighting how the drug will swiftly and easily remedy it. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the commercial, they quickly whisper the potentially harmful—and occasionally alarming—side effects, before finishing with a slower, more pronounced repeat of the drug’s benefits. Think that sequencing is on purpose? You bet!
Putting Important Things First
Much like prescription drug commercials, your proposals and presentations should start by highlighting your most important information—the two to four key benefits that your service/product will provide the prospect. For a proposal, do it in your Executive Summary. For a presentation, do it in your first PowerPoint slide.
The reason for this is simple: your prospects will be more likely to remember the information. As demonstrated by the exercise above, this approach capitalizes on the primacy effect, a cognitive bias that results in prospects recalling early information better than later information.
Unfortunately, this approach is counter to what we see practiced at many organizations. Often the tendency is to use the structure of a movie or short story, starting with general company information and features and ultimately building to a strong close. Bad idea.
So next time you’re tempted to start an Executive Summary or PowerPoint deck with your company profile, firm history, or a long-winded introduction, ask yourself: “If my prospect remembers only one thing, do I want it to be this?” Probably not.
Coming Up Next Time
Providing your key messages first serves another, equally important function: creating a positive first impression. We’ll be talking about the power of first impressions, including how they can make or break the remainder of your proposal or presentation, in our next post.
Exercise Answers: 1. home, wood, green, roof, door; 2. rope, table, pen, tree, cow; 3. and; 4. New Orleans Jazz. Numerous psychologists have developed exercises similar to the one presented in this entry. For other examples and more detailed explanations, check out two outstanding books: Tony Buzan’s Brilliant Memory and Andy Bounds’ The Jelly Effect. Enjoy.
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