31 January 2011

The Zen of Presentations, Part 38: What you say vs. what they remember

What you say and what people remember can differ.

Case in point.

The January 2011 American State of the Union address, actual words used:

The January 2011 American State of the Union address, perceived (according to listeners of National Public Radio, so not a random sample of listeners):

I did not watch this particular speech as it aired. But this pattern so striking that I decided to go back and watch the thing to try to figure out what the heck was accounting for this difference. Besides, I had decided to pull an all-nighter anyway, because I had a ridiculously early wake-up time for a trip. So I had time to kill, and I listened.

I was expecting the salmon reference to come at the very beginning or near the end, because of the primacy and recency effects in memory. I was surprised to see it fairly solidly in the middle of the talk. I do think that the reason education looms large as the largest specific topic (rather than general impressions like “hopeful”) is that it was at the beginning of the talk.

What didn’t surprise me was that “salmon” was being used in a joke:

We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV. There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. (Laughter.) I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked. (Laughter and applause.)

That this example stuck is a great testament to the power of humour. The word “salmon” appears exactly once in the entire speech. Teachers who have to do a lot of lectures may find that their students might not remember the thing they were supposed to learn, but they will remember the jokes.

But why that one? It certainly wasn’t the only joke in the speech. The transcript indicates “(Laughter.)” at least five other times.

And for me, the salmon wasn’t even the funniest joke in the speech. I thought his comment about high-speed trains was better:

For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.

So why did this joke stick so much more than the others? Some time ago, I wrote:

One caveat on using humour during a presentation. Don’t just tell a joke just to make a joke. Tell a joke to make a point. The humour should relate to the material.

While I smiled more at the pat-down line, it wasn’t making a point about high-speed rail; more a passing reference to the inconvenience of air travel. The whole anecdote about salmon exemplified the bigger issue about bureaucratic structure.

The moral of the story is to make sure your humour serves your main point. Humour is so powerful, so memorable, it can detract from your main point rather than enhancing it if you’re not careful.

I guess it was too much to hope that the U.S. President gave a speech all about how the future of American was ichthyology.

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