Echoic Memory: Learning Through Sound

When you get up to present, it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. And obviously you want all of your hard work to count. But what if none of it sinks in? What if the audience isn’t actively listening to you?

Today we’ll look at how our brains process sound through sensory input. Echoic memory is the very brief reverberation of the human brain when we receive auditory input. Think of it as temporary storage. For instance, if you are distracted or disinterested while someone is telling you a story, you can probably recall the last thing the person said, but not much before that. That’s your echoic memory.

As speakers, it’s important to understand how our audience members use sensory input to learn. That way, we know how to develop presentations with greater staying power. And we can give our words a chance to make it past the temporary state of echoic memory.

5-Second Decay

In 1970, Glucksberg and Cowan conducted groundbreaking research which concluded that information we take in auditorily will disappear, or “decay,” within about 5 seconds if we don’t “attend” to it. In other words, when information reaches our brain through our ears, we have to make a conscious choice to capture it or that “echo” of information disappears. But studies show that “if a person makes an effort to retain a sensory memory, it may be coded into short-term memory, allowing the brain to store the information for roughly 20 to 30 seconds longer.”

Helping Your Audience Listen

But what can you do as a speaker to assure that “a person makes an effort?” How do you get your audience members to attend to the words long enough to keep them from decaying? Try these tips.

Reinforce the echoic input (sound) with iconic input (visual). Use some type of presentation media to reinforce what you are saying. A visual will give the audience another way to process the information which will increase their chances of both retention and recall.

Repeat the important points. If you need to catch the audience’s attention, try using a verbal highlighter. If you simply say something like, “I want to make sure you caught that” or “This is important, let me say that one more time,” it will help make sure the information sticks.

Make your words powerful, colorful, or unique. A message full of clichés might be doomed to echoic memory decay. However, a presenter who is willing to become a linguistic craftsman stands a much better chance of getting past that 5 seconds.

Use emotional appeals. We process emotions at a deeper level than information that is strictly logical. That’s because emotions are more closely tied to the core of who we are. Research published in the NeuroImage journal found that we are better able to remember more emotional material because of this. It quite literally hits us at a deeper level, so there’s a greater chance emotional material—something funny or moving—will get past our echoic memory.

Granted, our audience members have to be responsible for their own listening skills, and we can’t change this. But we can make it easier for them by following the tips outlined above. Before taking our place in front of an audience, we can work to help ensure our words don’t slip unnoticed into the graveyard of echoic memory.

Our presentation design and training services at Ethos3 are backed by science and are tested in the real world. How can we help you create and deliver your best presentation ever?


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