2 ways for more memorable presentations

Focus on the order

My local swim club needed volunteers to help officiate swim meets. They asked parents with a kid on the swim team to consider becoming a swim official.

I thought it could be interesting, so I signed up to learn more. The first step was to attend a webinar training session.

At the webinar, the presentation went like this:

  • First, the speaker introduced themselves

  • Then, they gave an outline of their talk

  • Then, they delivered the talk

  • Finally, they ended with Q&A

95% of presentations I’ve heard follow this format.

So what’s the problem?

After the presentation, I mostly remembered the speaker intro at the beginning and Q&A at the end.

I remembered very little about everything in between.


Origin story

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus* conducted a series of tests on himself. He studied a random list of terms. He tried to remember as many as possible.

Ebbinghaus noticed that he was much more likely to remember the first and last items in the series. He barely remembered anything in the middle of the list.

The position of an item in a list affects how well you remember it.

Order matters.

This is known as the Serial Position Effect.

Ebbinghaus’ book detailing his memory experiments

Primacy and recency

The Serial Position Effect combines the Primacy Effect and Recency Effect.

Primacy effect: you remember the first pieces of information best

Recency effect: you remember the last pieces of information best

You are much less likely to recall anything in between.

We see the primacy and recency effect everywhere:

  • Grocery list (primacy): if you forget it, you’ll remember the first items

  • Voting (recency): political messages on voting day are effective

  • Courtroom trials (both): opening and closing statements sway jurors

Memorable presentations

Use these primacy and recency techniques to make your presentations better.

Primacy effect

Make your most important point first - don’t wait until halfway through your presentation to make your key point. A lot of people may tune out by then.

Tell a story - you’ve probably noticed I tell a lot of stories. There’s a reason they come first. Combine stories with a powerful statement to make it more memorable.

Avoid a generic intro - introduce yourself after you make your most important point. Your content is the star, not you.

Recency effect

Get the last word - never let someone else finish your presentation. Avoid the cardinal sin of ending with Q&A. Why? Because people will remember that more than your closing thoughts. Finish Q&A a few minutes before the end of your presentation.

End with a good takeaway - I like to use, “If you get nothing else from this presentation, let it be this…” Make it easy for people to remember one thing instead of hoping they remember everything. Do this right after Q&A.

What if I have to choose?

If you have to decide between a strong opening and strong closing, go for a strong opening. You’re in more control at the beginning of a presentation.

Some people may leave or stop paying attention at the end. Make your case while you have a captive audience at the beginning.

Use this anywhere

You can use the power of primacy and recency effects in any type of presentation.

  • A webinar on a topic of interest

  • A presentation to senior leaders

  • A keynote at a conference

  • A guest lecture to a class

  • And many more

Make sure to focus on the beginning and the end. Just like in swimming, it makes a big difference.

Thanks for reading.

See you next week,


*Ebbinghaus also came up with the forgetting curve