Last Updated on November 17, 2022 by Allen Stafford

Leveraging Human Memory To Effectively Communicate

Listen to the Audio Version — 8:47

Human memory is a complex process with varying types of memory stored in different parts of the brain. Memory relates to communication because much of our miscommunication with others stems from what we remember or don’t remember. As communicators, if we better understand the basics of human memory, we can leverage what we know about it to craft effective and positive communication experiences.

The following information on human memory is by far conclusive. It is a mere overview of how each type of memory stores information in our brains. Immediately following the section on memory types, we discuss how to leverage what we know about memory in order to ensure that our audiences fully understand what we are trying to say.

Human Memory Types — An Overview

The following is a brief definition of the different types of human memory. Each type of memory identifies what type of information and how long that information is stored in its respective memory type.

Sensory memory is the shortest form of memory, lasting briefly fewer than three seconds. Our sensory system takes in everything our senses do, including sight, smell, sound, and touch. Sensory memory alone does not make it into our conscious awareness.

Short-Term memory lasts about 15 to 30 seconds and a person can hold about seven items, plus or minus two items in short-term memory. Hence, the reason phone numbers are seven digits in the U.S. It is, however, possible to increase the amount of items you hold in short-term memory by using repetition or mnemonic devices.

Working memory is like a mental workspace where you can bring together short-term and long-term memory to execute cognitive tasks, like achieving a goal or solving a problem.

Long-Term memory is memory that takes information from short-term memory and coverts it into long-lasting memories. Long-term memory is from an hour to decades old and can be held for an indefinite period.

Semantic memory relates to facts that we learned about our environment and the world. An example of semantic memory may require you to recall five facts about your last vacation or travels to another country.

Episodic memory are memories remembered from your personal point of view. They include sounds, sights, smells about things that have happened in a specific context, time, or place in your life.

Procedural memory pertains to things you know how to do. For example, driving a manual shift car or preparing a specific meal from memory, not a recipe.

Prospective memory are those memories about things we are planning to do in the future. They are the memories about the things we want, intend, or plan to do. Prospective memory can be as simple as planning to take your lunch to work or school the next day or planning a family vacation in a year.

Strategies for Leveraging Human Memory for Effective Communication

The following three strategies are best practices for leveraging what we know about human memory for developing effective communication. To create messages easily recalled by your listener, I suggest a few tactics you can use for each strategy.

Emphasize Context and Purpose when Communicating

Perhaps you remember when you were a child and learned a topic you didn’t understand the purpose of knowing why you needed to learn it. For example, algebra. You might have thought to yourself that you will never need to know algebra once you left school, so what was the purpose for learning it then? Most likely, your teacher did not explain to you why you may need to learn algebra and how you would use it as an adult.

It is best practice to give context and purpose when communicating ideas, requests, or processes to someone in order to leverage human memory. If we do not have a legitimate reason to use the information, we render it useless and pay less or no attention to it. Explaining how something works or why it’s important for someone to know that information helps them keep it in their memory, making it easier to recall in the future.

For example, imagine that you are a supervisor and ask one of your employees if they know the latest sales numbers while in-passing. The employee looks it up and gives you the information, then walks off to tend to their business. Later that day, you both attend a meeting and ask the same employee to recall the sales numbers. Chances are, they may recall them or may not. If you had provided context for your earlier request, then the chances of the employee recalling the sales numbers were greater.

Helping the listener visualize themselves interacting with the information later will help them remember and recall that information. Asking the employee about the latest sales figures and explaining that you may bring up the numbers at the sales meetings later in the day is one way to communicate context in our example. This gives the employee purpose and context for recalling that information.

Regarding the original example of why algebra is important for students, if their teacher explained algebra stimulates the brain, helping students to think in new ways while helping them formulate reasonable responses to complex or dynamic situations, the students may be more likely to want to learn. It may even be helpful to explain what careers require complex thinking and how students may even change careers in the future that require such thinking to solidify the concepts of learning algebra.

Incorporate Emotion into Your Communication

As emotional creatures, we operate through emotional connections. By incorporating emotions into your communication, you help the listener imprint your message into long-term memory. The more emotional the message and connection with the listener, the stronger it encodes in their brain. By targeting one or more of the six emotions commonly used by advertisers or by connecting an action to an emotion, communicators can connect their message to emotion.

Advertisers have long tapped into human emotions when creating their messages. The advertiser uses emotion to make a connection, hoping the audience will commit to memory their marketing message. As a communicator, however, use the tactic sparingly and only if you understand your audience. Advertisers used the following emotions to connect with their audiences:

  1. Happiness
  2. Sadness
  3. Disgust
  4. Anger
  5. Surprise
  6. Fear

The second tactic using emotion to get your listener to commit your message to memory is to relate th’s emotions or an emotional experience instead of making the interaction based on emotion. To do so, communicators use figures of speech, such as analogies, similes, parables, and stories to make connections. The idea is to connect new information to something your listener already knows or experienced through the use of one or more of the figures of speech. Using figures of speech and the connection to what the listener already knows allows them to connect the message to the emotion and remember it later.

As an example, imagine that you are giving a presentation to dog owners. You can draw upon their emotional connection to their pets through the use of emotional analogies or stories about a pet owner and their dog.

It is important to make a connection between your message and the listener’s emotions. The strategy involves two tactics that help your message stick in the receiver’s long-term memory and be easy to recall later. The first method is by using one of the six emotions used by advertisers, or second, by making a direct emotional connection through figures of speech and the listener’s experience with the topic.

The last strategy to get a listener to commit your information to memory is what’s called a Mnemonic device.

Using Mnemonic Devices to get Your Audience to Commit Your Message to Memory

A mnemonic device is a memory technique to help a listener commit to memory information and later recall that information. This technique makes it easier for the listener to remember things by organizing the data in a manner that may otherwise be too much to remember at once.

By using mnemonics, the listener can associate new information with what they already know. They use patterns, causes, and associations to help them recall the information more easily.

A common type of Mnemonic device is the formation of acronyms using the first letter of each word in the list you want to remember. One popular acronym for remembering the Great Lakes is “HOMES.” Each of the letter that spells the word homes represents one of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

Final Thoughts

Miscommunication often occurs based on whether we remember or don’t remember information. Effective communicators use the human memory to craft messages that are more likely to be remembered and recalled by the listener. If it were easy, communicators would change how people communicate. However, that is not the reality of a sender and receiver relationship. We cannot change how others communicate. Thus, we need to look toward ourselves as the communicator and change how we react to someone else’s communication.

Communication Activity: Find an Example

Note your encounters with other people. Perhaps you see a stranger passing by, or meet a new co-worker or teacher for the first time. Listen to your intrapersonal communication. What types of thoughts are you communicating to yourself? Are they positive or negative? How do they reflect your self-image?

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