Same moment, different memory of it.
My sister and I were talking about an event from our childhood, and we ended up arguing over the details of the story. We couldn’t agree on what had happened. We were both there, but we both had distinctly different memories of the event. I would swear what I remembered was true, and she likewise.
Shouldn’t two people who were present in the same moment remember it the same way?
Memory is strange. You remember a favorite pair of shoes from age four and can’t remember what you ate yesterday.
How Does Our Memory Work?
My sister and I aren’t the same person. We each remembered different details that they other may not have even noticed at the time. Our personalities and life experiences caused us to interpret the memory differently; memory can sometimes be less factual and more interpretive.
Not only that, but there are different kinds of memory at work in every given moment. According to writer Ashish Ranpura, we can categorize memory in two ways: how long they last, or what they are for.
If we want to understand memories according to how long they last, they can be divided up into three kinds:
- Immediate (Sensory) Memories. These last milliseconds, and we aren’t even aware of them. For example, you might be standing on a mountain and looking at a beautiful scene. As you turn your head and take it in, your immediate memories help you keep it together so it makes sense from where you started to where you ended. It keeps every moment in life knitted together instead of being jarring and shocking.
- Short-term (Working) Memories. These last about a few minutes, and are meant to hold onto information long enough to be helpful for what you’re doing. You’ll probably forget it shortly, but it won’t matter. Turning the key in the door, flipping off the light, turning a page in a book, meeting a person at a party and hearing their name–these are the “now” memories, and they rely on audio/visual cues.
- Long-term Memories. These last from an hour to years (unlimited permanent storage), and this is what we usually think of when we hear the word “memory.” It’s where we store ideas, facts, stories–who we are. It is schematic memory, meaning we link between “chunks” of information to pull together the memory we need. It is built on meaning and association (as we’ll talk about in a bit).
It is the short-term and long-term memories that we’ll be most interested in for this blog post. My sister and I had long-term memory of the same event, but we used different “chunks” of information to compile it and the end result was a different memory.
The other method of categorization, based on what memories are for, would offer two possibilities:
- We remember what something is. These we can describe verbally. For example, who my family is, what we did there, when they got married.
- We remember how something is done. These we cannot describe verbally. For example, how to drive, how to ride a bike, how to cook, how to play the piano.
Why does any of this memory stuff matter?
Because, as a content marketer, you want your audience to remember your content, and you want them to remember you. You want to be firmly in long-term memory, not short-term (and forgettable) memory. You’ll want to understand they might not interpret your content in the same way the longer it sits in their memory.
Let’s look at how we form memories.
Memories Are Built Through Associations
We build (and recall) memories based on what we have associated them with. There are two ways this happens.
1. Location/Story Association
We remember things based on where we learn them (the geography of learning, and why it’s dangerous to learn everything in front of your computer), or what location we mentally “place” them in.
If you were to ask me about a book I had in my personal library, I’d talk about it by talking around it. “It had an orange spine, with blue lettering,” I might say, “and on the third shelf, second from the left.”
The way I remember books is not by author or title (at first) but by the color of the book, and where it is on my own bookshelves. Once I head down that path, the title and author will come to me, as well as the relevant information I took away from the book. The book’s cover and placement has nothing to do with what I am trying to remember from inside the book, but I have to go to the place it is, and how it looks, before I can get into the book itself.
This is called the “method of loci“, a location-based memory technique that that the ancients knew. Fans of the TV series “Sherlock” will know of it as Sherlock’s “mind palace.”
What is this location-based method?
It’s a memory technique that uses our generally strong spatial learning abilities to connect memory to them. A great explanation of it can be found in Andi Bell, the World Memory Champion of 2002, a man who seems to have memory super powers. He is able to memorize the order of several decks of cards and recall them when asked.
Bell explains his location method simply. He picks a route through London, walks it, and repeats the walk (repetition, which we’ll talk about shortly) until it is firmly embedded in his mind. He makes note of buildings and points of interest. He also associates each card with a character or picture. The Jack of Clubs, for example, becomes a bear. The Nine of Diamonds is a saw, and the Two of Spades is a pineapple.
In other words, he associates a single character or object with a card. He doesn’t have to remember if it was a red or black card, what number it was, or what suit it was (three things to remember); instead, it is merely a simple character. Then, as he’s memorizing the order of the decks, he places these characters and objects along the route he walked that morning, e.g. the bear is sawing the pineapple in front of the House of Parliament.
In this way, the order of the deck isn’t a complex string of facts he has to memorize, but stories. Each deck is a story of characters and objects whose “plot” occurs on the route in a particular order.
This is why we remember stories so well.
This is why we remember what we learn from teachers who can give real-life examples and anecdotes so we can associate it with something we know already.
And this is why using story and examples in your content marketing is so powerful when it comes to your readers remembering what you had to say.
2. Emotional Association
Memory is, from the day you start life, a series of emotional building blocks.
There are no unrelated events. We are associating and connecting them constantly, often to an emotion that occurs at the time. A completely benign song can make you cry because you associate a sad memory with it, or the smell of bread can make you nostalgic because it reminds you of happy memories.
When my nieces and nephews were younger, I used to do scavenger hunts for them when they would come visit for the holidays. I provided them clues and they had to find more clues throughout the house. I absolutely always included a clue behind a drawing of Meleager that hung on the wall in the dining room. To this day, they have a specific memory of Meleager, but it is not a memory of Greek mythology or even art history (the true understanding of Meleager). It is of scavenger hunts. When they are older adults and someone should mention Meleager, they are going to remember family holidays.
Tip #1: How can you use association with your content marketing?
You have the ability to associate completely unrelated things together in your audience’s memory. Association is a powerful tool. Can you associate your product or service to an emotion? To a feeling? To a place?
Is Coca-Cola really about world unity, sharing, and love?
It’s just a beverage, after all, but that’s not the association they are making in their content. That’s not the memory they put into people’s minds when they cracked open a bottle of Coke. They managed to turn a sugary beverage into a memory of positive feelings.
Memories Are Links On A Chain
Unlike a computer, which has random access memory that lets you grab the info you want directly, our memory is a tangled mass of connections, all of them linked to each other as if on interconnected chains.
Let’s say you want to use your grandma’s bread recipe. On a computer, if you want to find your grandma’s bread recipe, you find it directly. In your brain, you don’t get the recipe directly. You’re going to think of your grandma, holidays at her house, how her kitchen smelled when she baked her bread, what she looked like–eventually you’ll get to the bread recipe.
In our minds, we remember by traveling from one linked connection to another until we finally find what we want.
Here’s Andi Bell showing host Robert Winston that association works for anyone. At the end, Winston explains how these linked connections work.
As Winston explains in the video, we have trouble digging up a memory if there is only one neural pathway to it. Neural pathways are easily broken (forgotten). When we interlink and create many pathways (grandma’s face, the smell of the kitchen, her house, the bread plate), a broken pathway won’t slow us down. We’ll just hop on another route to get to the memory we need.
Tip #2: How can you use linked memories with your content marketing?
On this blog, we harp a lot about using story in your content, and there’s a reason why: Stories are many paths all leading to one ending.
As a content marketer, you need to make it easy for your readers to form multiple pathways to what you want them to remember. Illustrate the most important fact through story and example in several ways so that one of them sticks.
For fun: Give Andi Bell’s memory trick a try here.
Memories Are Built Through Repetition
There is no avoiding the re- methods of learning, which are reinforcement and repetition. These are not popular methods of learning today, but they are vital to turning a short-term memory into a long-term memory.
We call memorization by repetition “rote” learning and for some, and that has negative connotations. Why do we no longer like the idea of rote learning? It’s not fun, it’s work, it takes practice, and it doesn’t seem very creative.
The problem is that we learn through reinforcement and repetition, whether we like it or not, and rote learning works on your audience. Remember, one of the key aspects of Bell’s location method was to repeat the route through London until that was in place in his memory. That had to be locked down and unmovable so that the card characters could “move around” according to location and associative techniques.
Repetition, then, is a solid way to turn purposeful working memory into an almost subconscious long-term memory.
There are two problems with using repetitive learning only, though, and they have nothing to do with killing creativity.
1. We lose the details of the memory.
Repetition smooths over the bumps, wearing down the rough edges. According to a study about repetitive learning by neurobiologists Zachariah M. Reagh and Michael A. Yassa in the Journal of Learning & Memory, repetitive learning “shakes loose” the details of memories. Those details are sometimes what differentiate similar memories from another.
What happens when we lose the details?
2. We can create false memories.
Once the details are gone, memories become almost ambiguous. They are not anchored in the details that made them stand out. The more you recall a memory, the more subjective it becomes, the more you’re not sure.
My sister and I had recalled that childhood story over and over in our minds many times through the years. The details became lost, and the story morphed into a childhood game of “telephone” where each time we dialed up the memory, something was slightly changed from the last time we’d thought of it. Yet we were both certain we had the story right.
As any pianist knows, practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, if you practice sloppily, you learn the song sloppily and it is almost impossible to unlearn what poor practice ingrained in you. Every detail you lose is one more wrongly ingrained memory.
Does that mean repetitive memory techniques should be avoided?
Not at all. It merely means you should use them along with the other memory techniques.
Tip #3: How can you use repetition in your content marketing?
Cover your most important topics repeatedly, from every angle possible.
What do you think an ad campaign is, but an attempt to embed a message or idea in our memory through repetition?
The Energizer Bunny didn’t show up one time and immediately sink into the national psyche. He kept coming back, over and over, in different scenarios in commercial after commercial. We finally got it: he keeps on going. It is why you can (and should) write about the same topic more than once: chances are very good they didn’t really get it the first time, or the second. They need to hear it over and over before it sinks in.
What Gets Remembered The Best?
So, what kind of content gets remembered the best?
Something that makes an association to what the audience member already has in his memory.
Something that provides multiple ways of understanding a topic (multiple neural pathways), preferably through story, illustration, and anecdote.
Something unusual that isn’t so similar that it falls into the “I’ve seen this before” rote memory which can’t differentiate well. Good designers sometimes make the mistake of making everything look “similar” for visual branding purposes, not realizing they hurt the ability of some to differentiate among their content. Copycats also do themselves no favors for this same reason.
Something that doesn’t require long-term memory to grasp, i.e. isn’t so complex or long that they forget what they’ve read at the beginning. When we’re reading, we’re functioning on short-term memory. It’s easy to forget things. Blogger A.J. Kohn even suggests our infographics are getting too complex.
You might use the information in this post to simply help you remember things better; great! But, once you begin understanding how people remember things, you can add this to your content marketing tool chest. You can create content that is memorable, or primed to be remembered, even in the midst of a deluge of content that is screaming to be forgotten.