Apr 01, 2020
If you were heading down to the grocery store how many items would you need to pick up before making a list?
Take a moment to think about it.
Sometimes I hear people say 2 or 3 items. Sometimes it could be 5, but rarely do I hear anybody going for more than six items without a list. This capacity to hold new information is what we refer to as our working memory and it is very helpful to know about its limitations when placing expectations on yourself or others.
The working memory is part of our short-term memory. If you want information to stick it has to make the journey to long-term memory. We will discuss that journey in another post but right now we will discuss our capacity to absorb and hold new information at a given time. This is helpful for parents, salespeople, managers, teachers, instructors - it is relevant to anybody, but especially those of you that share your thoughts and concepts regularly and need them to be accurately understood.
Have you ever been in a presentation where you get what the speaker is talking about for the first 10 minutes and at some point, your mind wanders and it feels impossible to bring it back? Well, this happens to everybody in a variety of circumstances. It happens to kids in classrooms where they might grasp what the teacher is covering at the start of the class and then they feel like they wander off and can’t come back. This is because the speaker or the teacher has maximized the working memory within the first 10 minutes. They literally don’t have any space to absorb new information.
We can hold between 2-6 new pieces of information in our brain at a given time. It is on the lower end of the scale when information is complex and on the higher end if it is more simple and familiar.
This is why I have never heard somebody in a workshop tell me they would be able to go to the grocery store for more than 6 items without making a list. Even though we may not be aware of what our working memory is we are subconsciously aware of its capacity.
If you are trying to teach something new to somebody or you are informing them about your product then keep it narrow. Focus on one or two things and then give lots of examples and stories on those one or two things.
When you can present your core message with a lot of variety it is a very successful first step on your way to making your information stick in somebodies long term memory. The famous physicist, Richard Feynman, who Bill Gates considers to be ‘The best teacher I never had’ was famous for his ability to make complex concepts accessible and easily understood. His approach to achieving this was to talk about the concept in a variety of contexts, sometimes with jokes, sometimes with real-world scenarios - but always keeping it fresh. By keeping his topic of discussion narrow but his explanations broad his students working memory remained active and never overloaded. You can hear him explain his teaching methods in this short video.
So consider this next time you are trying to teach something to somebody. Ask yourself what’s the big idea? What is the main thing that I want to communicate and what are they are most familiar with? Stay narrow on what you are explaining and search far and wide for a variety of stories, jokes and physical objects that relate to your message. I know from experience stripping a presentation from 5 talking points to 2 can feel very daunting as the presenter but remember your impact is not in the number of topics that you can cover it is in the quality and depth of your message and how long it sticks with your audience.