Paint vivid pictures in your readers’ minds
What two elements helped college students remember the information they’d read in magazine articles — and can help you make your messages more memorable, too?
The importance of the information, weirdly, was not one of the elements. In fact, the information the students themselves rated the most important also turned out to be the least memorable.
Instead, the students were most likely to remember copy that painted pictures in their minds and provoked an emotional response. (Good news for writers: Accomplishing one of these objectives can also help you accomplish the other.)
How the study worked
In the study, 54 college students read three feature articles from Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic. Then they rated each paragraph for its degree of:
- Imagery. How well did the paragraph paint mental pictures in the student’s mind?
- Affect. How successful was the paragraph at evoking an emotional response in the student?
- Importance. How essential was the paragraph to furthering the main point of the article?
Sixteen days after they’d read and rated the articles, the students were surprised with a pop quiz. The researchers asked the students to write in their own words the specific part of each article they best remembered and why.
What readers remember
So which characteristics of the copy were most memorable?
1. Imagery. The information the students ranked most vivid was also the most memorable. This included paragraphs with narration, description and other vivid and interesting “nuggets” of concrete, colorful information.
In one of the most memorable paragraphs, for example, Reggie Williams, then a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, worked closely with tiny preschoolers, gluing sparkles onto pine cones. One child climbed into Reggie’s lap and asked him about a tattoo on his arm.
The students called out imagery as being memorable. “This is most memorable because I could visualize it in my head,” one wrote.
2. Emotion. The paragraphs the students ranked most emotionally affecting came in a close second to the vivid paragraphs.
“I guess I could remember it because it was touching,” one wrote.
The good news for writers is that imagery and emotion are closely connected. Students tended to rate the most colorful passages the most emotional, as well. So if you want readers to care about your subject, make it concrete, not abstract.
To be memorable, copy must be concrete or emotional or both: On the pop quiz, the students most often completely forgot the article they ranked the least vivid and the least emotional.
Important information can be forgettable
And the most important information? It wasn’t memorable at all.
In fact, the correlation between importance and recall was actually negative in most cases. That is, the more important the students ranked the information, the more likely they were to forget it.
So if you’re counting on the importance of your message to carry the weight of communication, you’re placing a losing bet.
But important information need not be forgettable. To make it memorable, illustrate your most important information with concrete, emotional details.
Seeing and feeling trumps thinking
Why are seeing and caring so much more important than, well, importance, in getting your message remembered? The researchers offer this explanation:
Want readers to remember your message? Write copy that makes them see it and feel it, not just think it.
Source: Mark Sadoski and Z. Quast, “Reader response and long term recall for journalistic text: The roles of imagery, affect and importance,” Reading Research Quarterly, Vol.25, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 256-272