How soon will you be forgotten?

We all want to be remembered. Every presenter wants you to remember her message—and wants you to remember her. Yet how often do we go about our day rehashing details of a Powerpoint presentation or a spreadsheet we saw at a meeting? Not so often, right?… Well, why not?  And why is the mind more captivated with Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, or something that happened on the news, than with a work-related topic far more relevant to our life?

To answer these questions and discover the key to being remembered, we have to look inside the brain and trace the 500 million years of our evolution from lizard to spreadsheet. Here the three-paragraph version:

In a simplified way, our human brains of today are a concert of three different brain structures that have evolved in order over time. First, when we were slimy little lizards just crawling out of the seas, our brain was only what is now our brain stem or “reptilian brain,” devoted to subconsciously meeting survival needs like warmth, food, water, and species reproduction.

Fast forward a few hundred million years to the post-dino world, and our furry human ancestors developed an emotional processing and memory complex called the limbic system, which we share with all other mammals. The key function of the limbic system is to create memory of dangerous moments like lion attacks or car accidents, and to advantageous events like finding yummy food or falling in love. Ever notice how you can remember the smell of past flame’s perfume even years after the fact, or about how a car accident seems to play out again and again in slow motion, while hours of a regular day are almost entirely forgotten? That’s the mind’s emotional significance meter — called the Amygdala — at work, selectively storing memory based on its perceived survival relevance. In allowing us to learn from the past by codifying events by emotional significance, these limbic system memory traces proved to be especially survival-promoting, as we could now act very quickly to avoid what harms and to pursue what helps.

Finally, starting about 2 million years ago, our grunting forefathers in the Rift Valley of Africa developed the third brain structure called the neo-cortex. This structure allows for abstraction, organization, and the development of language and number systems. This is the brain structure associated with being human, with being rational, with blog posts, and with managing a spreadsheet.

How does this crash course in evolutionary biology help us be remembered? In a nutshell, we have to recognize that we are still mammals, as well as being humans. The key message here is that our memory is tied to emotional significance. That has not changed in the last few million years. Knowing this, the key question becomes: How can I make my presentations emotionally significant for my audience?

The answer is not to go for shock value over content. Pulling the fire alarm or yelling at the next meeting will certainly leave a strong memory trace, but it will probably be associated with avoiding you, rather than with remembering your message.

A more productive answer is almost as old as language itself: storytelling. Story has the unique ability to combine a key message or moral with an emotional experience, and has the advantage that we do not have to experience an emotionally charged event ourselves in order to get the memory trace benefit—we can live the experience vicariously through a character and his or her adventure.

All of the world’s religious traditions, folk traditions, and pedagogical traditions have recognized that for a message to create culture, it first has to be remembered! All use story for this. Hollywood and the world’s best writers create cultural sensations and inspire tremendous loyalty and identification through their stories. Advertising has been savvy at this since its inception, but the rest of the business world is just now catching on. Steve Jobs used only a few image-heavy slides to support narratives carrying his revolutionary ideas. P&G, Nike, and a host of other fortune 500 corporations now employ corporate storytellers to create messages that “stick” and help create or transform culture.

So, next time you present, ask yourself: “How can I tell a story to give emotional significance to my message?” If not, you may be figuring out just how soon you will be forgotten…

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