There is no refund window for misused attention

Modern neuroscience shows just how easy it is to bungle your next high-stakes presentation. As one neuroscientist puts it, "the reaction to the average PowerPoint show is somewhere between amnesia and deja vu or, more accurately, “I think I’ve forgotten this before”. The good news is that some insight into how the brain works - (and a short lesson from History) - just might help...


The first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency were without precedent in the history of America. The country was in the grip of the Great Depression - a crisis which, according to some historians, threatened not just democracy but capitalism itself. When a journalist asked Roosevelt how it felt to be the 32nd president of America he famously said -

“If i’m not successful I’ll be the last president of America”.

As a matter of principle, Roosevelt harboured a deep cynicism towards the information he received from the official channels and he encouraged his cabinet to develop a worm’s eye view of the crisis instead. He wanted to hear the stories of the people most affected by the Depression and ordered the creation of his own “Daily Bugle”, a scrapbook containing clippings from hundreds of small local and regional newspapers. Roosevelt also welcomed letters from citizens and his staffers received and processed some 6000 of them a day.


So how did the president cope with such a torrent of data and information? More importantly, How did any of it coalesce into policy? It was all thanks to the hard work and outstanding communication skills of his people who learned, as Secretary of Labour Frances Perkins recalled, “to prepare material so that it would photograph itself upon his memory”.


Source: American Rhetoric.com


At first glance, this seems a trivial illustration but it provides a crucial insight into what communicators are up against. To put it simply: Unless a message stands out - unless it is salient - your audience has no hope of remembering it. And unless they can remember it, you cannot expect them to act on it”. As cognitive neuroscientist, Carmen Simon points out in her book "Impossible to Ignore"

“The brain makes decisions based on what it remembers not on what it forgets”

Yet the typical PowerPoint presentation is hardly the kind of thing that will, in Frances Perkins’ words, “photograph itself upon their memories”. In fact, jokes Carmen Simon, the immediate reaction to the average presentation is somewhere between amnesia and deja vu or, more accurately, “I think I’ve forgotten this before”.


“We underestimate how much and how quickly the brain forgets” explains Simon whose research on main message takeout is alarming, to say the least. In an experiment she conducted, subjects were invited to a short presentation during the course of a normal working day. 48 hours later they were questioned on what they remembered. The top respondents recalled, at best, about 10% of the content. More concerning, a significant minority had even forgotten having sat through a presentation at all! But it gets worse. Of the subjects who remembered 10% of the content, almost all had latched on to the wrong 10%. In other words, had they acted on their takeout the results could have been misguided and even disastrous. Thus, in the workplace, our recall problems are not necessarily retrospective (e.g. who was the speaker, what was their topic), they are prospective, meaning that people fail to recognise and recall core messages that will influence their futures


The challenge is as follows:

  • Firstly key messages must be clear enough for your audience to perceive. They must be signal amidst the noise. In Carmen Simon’s words, you must offer “clear, crisp 10% messages”

  • Second, your audience must agree with, believe, and care about those messages. They need an emotional bond with the subject matter. See a recent post on Alexander Sachs and the atom bomb presentation

  • Finally, your audience must want to listen to what you have to say … they must feel their time spent listening to you was both enlightening and worthwhile.

Or in the words of Seth Godin...

“There is no refund window for misused attention…If you want someone’s attention, I’m afraid you’re going to have to earn it. To pay for it. To do something that makes the person who just gave you this attention feel like a fair bargain was struck"

So with that in mind, let’s go back to our story about President Roosevelt


Eight days into his first term, the president ticked each one of these three boxes when he delivered his first Radio broadcast to the nation - known fondly to most as his Fireside Chat. Give it a listen


Meanwhile, It was the evening of March 12, 1933, and the administration was preparing to re-open the banking system after implementing drastic reform. It was a delicate moment with the very real danger that a spate of panic withdrawals would undermine any good that had been achieved. With piercing clarity, Roosevelt explained why the seven-day banking holiday had been necessary and how the phased reopening would work. Most importantly, he dissuaded everyone from making panic withdrawals by stressing that any reopened bank was backed by reliable capital assets and therefore a safer place to keep your money than under a mattress at home.


Roosevelt’s 13-minute chat captured everyone’s attention not only because of its intimate and friendly tone but because of how it simply explained the readjustment of America’s financial system. Ultimately, however, it was effective because of its clarion call for restraint. The administration had done its level best but for the plan to work, everyone had to keep their cool.

“You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumours or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail”

The fireside chat - now known as the “Banking Crisis” speech - had a “photographic” impact on the minds, memories, and most importantly, the behaviour of Roosevelt’s audience. When the banks reopened the following day, moderation prevailed and the road to recovery had begun…


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