Focus on the Narrative, Not the Bullets

Ever wonder how it’s possible that you can recall the most granular details about your social life in high school, but not a thing about Chemistry?

There are more eloquent ways to say it, but it’s human narcissism. We remember what’s relevant to our own experience of life, and not a lot else. To sort of prove that point, we all know at least one or two people who remember everything from Chemistry class…but not a lot about their social life. And guess what? They’re now all chemists, probably. It was relevant to them.

It’s not a high school phenomenon, either. It happens at every age. Presenters have to understand that their audiences have a blatantly narcissistic attitude when they come to listen. Sure, they’ll follow basic social etiquette and likely refrain from throwing tomatoes at you if you bore them, but you can’t make anyone listen, and you can even present in such a way that those who listen won’t remember.

Retention is all about connection. When we read a paragraph filled with information, our minds seek for something to connect to. Usually, that’s the thing that’s useful to us, or says something we agree with, or illuminates a reality for us. We discard the rest because the mind can only hold so much.

In fact, studies have shown that only 10-15% of an audience will recall specific bullet points just 5 minutes after a presentation; but they’ll recall 80% of the story-based, narrative elements—especially when those elements are visually supported through pictures or graphics.

This is a tricky subject with some presenters. It’s true that some of you have subject matters that are requisitely dense. Sometimes, some people have to present on things like quantum physics. It’s tough to boil that down to a story. Or at least that’s what the presenters say.

See, we’re not saying that presentations need to be dumb. We’re saying everything needs to be framed within a story. Our narcissism can keep us from retaining information, but it can also cause us to see our own story reflected in the narrative of something completely unrelated. We’re constantly searching for self-allegory and meaning, and that’s why narrative is key, and why the most successful presenters—even those with seemingly impossible, cerebral subject matters—rely on stories for the foundations of their presentations.

Because all learning is human-centric, all understanding is inextricably human-centric, too. Quantum physics is understood through a human lens. That means it can be taught in the context of humans, too. So next time you hit the stage, ask yourself if you’ve imagined your subject matter in the context of the people who will be listening. Can they place themselves in the narrative? Can they feel, emotionally, the impact of the narrative on their lives? Can they relate to it because the story reminds them of themselves?

As presenters, we have to push ourselves to locate that space where even the most intellectual or academic topics converge with real life if we want our message to stick. Once we create that sticking point through narrative, the information has a home, too. But if we never bother with the story, we’re just spitting in the wind.

Question: Have you ever taken a very complex idea and simplified it with story? What was it?

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