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Is your message memorable?

To be remembered, it must be memorable.

Yeah, that's a DUH thing. But we're constantly amazed by how many people ignore it.

(Us included, but we're trying.)

But focusing on that one simple concept can make a HUGE impact on whatever you're trying to do-- teach, sell, whatever.

After years of research and speculation, the neurobiologists are finally unlocking some of the deeper secrets of memory, led in large part by the work of Nobel winner Eric Kandel. Bert and I attended a presentation of his on the neurochemistry of memory, and it was... memorable : ) They can actually take a neuron (not from a human), large enough to see with the naked eye, stick it in a petri dish and... teach it. By altering the chemicals, they can put it in a state where it will never learn, and they can put it in a state where it learns after just one trial. (Read once, remember always.)

And they now know the agent responsible for my, um, less-than-A college final exam grades: CREB-2. Your brain is constantly doing a balancing act between CREB-1 (enables long-term memory formation) and CREB-2 (prevents it). It's all connected to protein synthesis, needed for encoding memories to long-term storage.

So if you're a teacher, trainer, author, advertiser... and you want to increase recall and retention, you're in for the fight of your life against CREB-2. Why is CREB-2 there? To save your life. Or at least your sanity. You obviously don't want to remember everything.

The big problem, of course, is that you aren't in control of your CREB-2. Your brain is making the decisions about what's important and what isn't. I talked about this a lot in one of my first blogs: Getting past the brain's crap filter. Brain_2

How, then, do you get past someone's CREB-2 (crap filter)? How do you make something memorable? Exploit what the brain is tuned to pay attention to. Exploit what the brain thinks is important.

The rough part is that even when people TRY to tell their brain "this is important, this is important, this is important", the brain says, "no it isn't, no it isn't, no it isn't." So if you're trying to get people to remember something, the sad part is that even when they WANT to remember, it's not guaranteed. You know this, of course, since you've all tried to remember things you read and study, but it just doesn't happen the way you'd like or even need.

So what does the brain remember? There are two main roads to memory--the slow painful one, or the much faster one. The slow painful one is through repetition. Repeated exposure (or what Kandel and others call "trials") eventually works. It's as if your brain says, "this sure doesn't FEEL very important, but he's read this damn paragraph 17 times, so I guess it is..." The quick one is to use the chemistry of emotions. Or as Roger Schank puts it:

"You remember that which you feel."

I'm really blending two things here--getting their attention, and getting them to remember. And they are closely related, because they're tied to triggering things the brain thinks is worth paying attention to. But I'm still mixing them more than is technically correct, because it is certainly possible to get someone's attention without getting them to remember, but for the most part, the distinctions don't matter. All I'm concerned about now is how to make the brain care.

And the key is to evoke feelings. The stronger the feeling, the more likely the brain is to pay attention and record what's happening. If you register a big flatline on the emotional richter scale (as you would during a dry lecture or reading a dull text book), your brain takes that as a perfect sign that "this is SO not life threatening."

There's a catch, though. Because intense feelings of stress also act as a memory suppresor. So it can't be just any feeling, but most will do the job. That's why putting people in a learning situation where they're feeling stressed, pressured, incapable, overwhelmed, stupid, etc. just compounds the problems they already have trying to memorize the stuff you're teaching.

OK, so what kind of feelings can I use? ANYTHING ELSE! Not everything is appropriate, of course, but anything I can get away with could work. Anything that causes a chemical shift, however slight, is an improvement.

That means humor, shock, horror, surprise, delight, joy, sex, thrill, etc. The problem today is that there's already so much of that, especially as advertisers try to break though the noise when the noise level today is already so high. It takes a LOT more to, say, shock someone than it did even ten years ago as people become desensitized. But context matters. In Colorado Springs, CO, I'd be shocked to see a billboard with a naked person on it. But when I worked in Hollywood, I wouldn't even notice the posters, billboards, store displays featuring naked people (often of uncertain gender) selling everything from shoes to software, because they were so common.

A racy scene in even a mainstream novel isn't too surprising (although often still memorable), but in a programming text book, even the slightest hint is unexpected. And sometimes unexpected is all you need.

The brain is highly tuned for novelty. It spent thousands and thousands of years scanning for the unusual, the moving, the changing, the doesn't-quite-pattern-match. USE THAT. The brain is tuned for sex... (like I had to actually tell you that : )), so USE THAT. I was about to add the requisite (where appropriate of course), but then... using where it is NOT quite appropriate works even better. Again, if you can get away with it. Please don't give me a morality lecture... I'll assume that everyone is using good judgement with respect to children, sexual harrassment, etc. I'm just talking about how the brain works, period.

The brain is tuned for things perceived as scary or threatening. USE THAT. (Although that one is a little riskier, because too much stress leads to the opposite effect). Shock and surprise are great, though. Again, anything you overuse will dimish its effectiveness, so the more variety of brain-triggering techniques the better.

In other blogs, I'll focus in on individual techniques. But of all the approaches to getting past CREB-2, the one that might be the best and easiest in most situations is simply "novelty". In other words, "don't do what is expected in that context." I think that'll probably be my next post...

Note to our authors: expect me, Bert, Eric, and Beth to be grilling you on what you're doing to get past the CREB-2. Even just a little cleverness, something just slightly off-center, something ordinary in one context but a little bizarre in thiscontext, or anything that elicits even the slightest head tilt or slight smile can be a big improvement in a technical text book, so it doesn't take a lot.

If you're an advertiser/marketer, on the other hand... wow. That's more of a challenge. On the other hand, people are so used to (and tuned out to) bullsh**, that simply being brutally honest (once they stop being cynical that you're just PRETENDING to be honest) is a major out-of-context experience that will work. If everyone finally gets on the Hughtrain, though, that'll only work until it's become the norm. (I doubt that'll ever happen, but the world would be a much better place if it does!).

If you want something to be remembered, CREB-2 is the moat you gotta get past. Shock on.

Posted by Kathy on December 29, 2004 | Permalink

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