How Leaders Can Make Their Message More Memorable

3 tricks that allow you to tap into how our memory works so you can craft messages that your employees and customers won't soon forget.

The following is a guest piece by cognitive scientist and author Dr. Carmen Simon.

Conversation between flight attendant and passenger:

“What would you like to drink, sir?”

Flight attendant goes to get it and turns around after 2 seconds:

“Sorry, was that a club soda?”
“No, water.”

I heard the exchange above just now, on a flight to Michigan. I hear similar ones in restaurants where someone places an order and the waiter returns after a few seconds to ask what the order was.

I hear a similar exchange at retail stores, where you tell sales reps your shoe size and a few seconds later, they return to ask again. I hear this exchange in meetings, where someone lists three issues and a few seconds later, someone else tries to repeat them but can only remember two. Memory is pathetic. And yet sublime. We would not be alive if we didn’t have memory.

While the human brain has not changed much in the past 40,000 years, what has changed is our ability to stay focused on a task. Distractions, anxieties, ruminations about the past, and constant temptations to predict the future interfere with our ability to remember and get things done here and now.

On the other hand, we seem to be perfectly capable of recollecting something that happened in childhood. How is that possible? And would the answer help us in business at all? After all, how do prospects remember to choose us if they can’t remember what someone said 2 seconds ago?

I’ve been intrigued by these questions and wrote the book “Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content To Influence Decisions” out of necessity. I wanted to know what helps us get on people’s minds and stay there long term. What are some issues that business people find challenging where memory is concerned? Here are three, along with solutions on how to address them:

Issue #1: We don’t help others form memories that endure long-term
As a result, at decision time, things don’t go in our favor simply because we are not part of a consideration set. This is a shame because people make decisions based on what they remember, not on what they forget.

This happens for multiple reasons: people are distracted, stressed out, content is irrelevant or dry, the presenter is dull or disinterested, and so forth. Some of these variables can be controlled and some cannot.

Fortunately, there are as many ways to help people remember as there are ways to make them forget. In my memory research, one variable that influences memory comes up again and again: it’s the element of surprise.

For example, it’s customary not to remember what you had for lunch last Tuesday. If a restaurant really wanted to leave a long-term impression, an element of surprise earns them that badge.

I recently went to a Spanish restaurant and had an amazing dragon fruit ceviche, with tuna, pecans, lemon, and hibiscus. I’ve seen ceviche dishes served in bowls, glasses, taco shells, but never in a dragon fruit shell, and with dragon fruit as one of the ingredients. I will never forget lunch last Tuesday.

Offer your audiences something they expect and something they don’t expect

Issue #2: We are in people’s memory but not distinguished from other memories on a similar topic/product/service
As a result, our audiences may remember something but may not necessarily associate with us.

For example, let’s say you wanted to partner with a hiring firm to help you find talented workers for your company. A few such companies come to pitch to you. You hear these types of messages.

Company A: “Our analytics-driven recruiting software accelerates hiring with an applicant tracking system, social recruiting, and mobile solution.”

Company B: “With automated communications, streamlined workflows and integration with social networks, our applicant tracking system and database allows you to move recruiting from paper-based systems to a streamlined digital solution.”

Company C: “Our talent acquisition, development and administration platform offers recruiting, onboarding, performance management, along with social network connectivity and data analytics.”

Company D: “our cloud-based talent management platform is designed to help businesses focus on talent acquisition, performance management, learning and development, and compensation management…”

If someone called you two days after hearing these messages and asked which message belonged to which company, you would have a hard time because they are not differentiated enough. As a result, we might like one of the messages but give credit to the wrong source. This translates into lost business.

Memory is good for advancing life. Precise memory is ideal for advancing business.

The solution is simple and difficult at the same time. Create a message that is not only differentiated but differentiated in such a way that is associated with you – a smashable message.

This concept was first invented in 1915 when Coca Cola asked a designer to create a bottle that could be recognized as Coke even after someone smashed the bottle to pieces. Smash a Ferrari or an Apple product and you would still know what they are just by looking at smaller pieces. Smash a Starbucks cup and if you’re looking at just a piece of cup without the green lady on it, would you know it was a Starbucks cup?

Analyzing your content, keep in mind that when you present it to someone, they are in the position to remember the message, you, and the association between you and the message.

More work must be done on this latter portion. We spend lots of time on the content, and on ourselves (“Are the buttons buttoned and the zippers zipped?”, “Do I have all the slides?”) but we don’t spend enough time on strengthening the association between what is said and who said it.

There are no magic beans about making this happen. Repetition is a key element in creating that association.

For example, I usually have tea and cookies together. And often when I see tea, I am immediately reminded of cookies. Or vice versa. This is why smokers who drink and smoke at the same time have troubles giving up smoking or drinking. The presence of one action cues the other.

So where your content is concerned, work a bit harder at building associations. After all, what is memory but an association between two constructs?

Issue #3: We are on people’s memory in a distinguished kind of way but the memory doesn’t lead to action
I remember attending a Tony Robbins workshop about four years ago, received a beautiful binder with all sorts of guidelines at the end, and I have not opened it since. I have lots of examples like these, from trivial to important.

I still remember a pair of shoes because they were more distinct than other shoes but I did not rush to buy them because they were not practical or comfortable. Sometimes business content meets these criteria: it offers lots of novelty and information about intriguing features of new products or services but it does not invite action

To make memory lead to action, we must offer something that our audiences’ brains consider rewarding. But what is rewarding?

Let’s consider rewards through the lens of the value we assign to different objects, people, and experiences. Values can range from functional and concrete to something more abstract.

For example, we buy things because we value their tangible attributes, such as a dishwasher, a type of detergent, or even insurance. But we also buy things for their emotional value: think of the last time you used your GoPro, or enjoyed food, drinks, or a film with friends.

We may also choose things or people or experiences for their epistemological value: this includes products or experiences that give us the opportunity for knowledge development and intellectual stimulation, such as books and seminars (epistemology studies the origin and nature of our knowledge).

We value things for their aesthetics, such as clothes and decorations. We also seek hedonistic values because they evoke sensory pleasure, which is why we enjoy good hotels and fun nightclubs.

Sometimes, we make choices because of situational value, such as selecting Champagne versus wine because of a special occasion. And when we are really picky, we base our actions on holistic value, such as choosing a vacation in Paris, which will appeal to a range of values, from emotional to epistemological, aesthetic to hedonistic.

You can find out what your audiences value most by using surveys, interviews, observation, or social media analytics.

For example, a service like Sprout Social has a “discovery” feature, which allows you to tap into your followers’ update feeds and figure out what they find important.

For your next content development project, consider this: it is not sufficient to be memorable to stay viable in business. You must be memorable and actionable.

Taken together, these 3 measures will ensure that the ideas and messages you push forth are not soon forgotten in today’s noisy, social media-driven world.

Dr. Carmen Simon is a published author, cognitive psychologist, and co-founder of Rexi-Media. She holds doctorates in instructional technology and cognitive psychology. Her latest book “Impossible To Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions” is currently available on (and for Canadian readers). To learn more about Carmen’s work, visit her website:

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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