Be Unforgettable

Be Unforgettable

Strategies for making your speech stand out with audiences tired of information overload.

By Emily Osburne, ACB

How much of your message will a typical audience member retain one day after hearing your speech?

One week later?
One month later?
One year later?

According to a Dun and Bradstreet study, 80 percent of the average speech will be forgotten within 24 hours. You have probably witnessed this phenomenon. You cheer for an impressive speech on Monday morning but by Tuesday afternoon, you struggle to recap the main points to a co-worker. You miss a Toastmasters meeting and although everyone agrees that Sam’s speech was top-notch, no one remembers his title two weeks later.

This low retention rate could be caused by the large amount of information we all receive on a daily basis. Workforce magazine estimates that the average Fortune 1000 worker sends and receives 178 e-mails a day. Dharma Singh Khalsa, in his book Brain Longevity, writes that the average American sees more than 16,000 advertisements a day. We are bombarded with information, so it’s our responsibility as speakers to make sure our listeners are not deleting our words like they disregard spam or throw out junk mail.

Even if a speech is delivered beautifully, with a thoughtful opening, body and conclusion, it can still be forgotten. Even if a speech is free of filler words like “um,” “ah” and “you know,” it can still be forgotten. Even if it’s interesting and relevant, it can still be forgotten.

The good news is that it is possible to stand out from all the mental noise. Here are a few simple tricks to help your overwhelmed audience retain the information you are presenting: 

Start With a Picture
Our brains have the ability to remember pictures more easily than words. Before developing your speech, ask yourself, “What picture do I want to leave in the minds of the listeners?” Forget the famous “three points.” Your listeners can better remember one single picture.

For example, by the end of this article, I want you to remember how overwhelmed people are with data. So picture this: You’re sitting in a white room with stacks and stacks of paper. On each piece of paper is a fact that you have been told at some time in your life. As you rifle through the papers, you discover one sheet with a colorful picture of a lake resting beside a majestic mountain. Which piece of paper is likely to take up permanent residence in your memory? The one with the picture is much easier to remember. You can apply that principle to speaking as well. Help your listeners by painting a picture with your words or even showing them a picture that describes your topic. 

Tell a Story
Another way to stand out in the minds of your listeners is through storytelling. Not all stories are created equal, though. According to Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, your story will likely be retained if it is emotional and unexpected. Emotions are the gatekeepers of the mind. The more emotional a moment, the more likely you are to remember it. That explains why most people remember their wedding day or where they were standing when they heard terrible, shocking news. Make sure that your story is a little bit more exciting than the listener’s everyday life. It can be thrilling, scary, shocking or even heartbreaking, but make sure it is not boring.

Twanda Mickle, DTM, has heard hundreds of speeches during her Toastmasters career. She says, “The most unforgettable speech I’ve ever heard came from a speaker who infused his personal successes, struggles and celebrations into a six-minute emotional roller coaster ride that left me in tears, laughter and utter exhilaration. I didn’t hear a speech; I felt it.”

Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and openly share yourself and your story in your speech. The audience will respect, appreciate and remember you for it. 

Audience Participation
To engage your audience members, thus stimulating their brains, craft interactive moments that require your audience to move, talk or role play. Involvement such as raising hands or signaling with “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” can be helpful. Ask your audience to make a decision or rate a favorite item or idea. Solicit feedback that requires a thoughtful response or a healthy debate. Disagreement is better than dullness. Wake up those audience members with hands-on activities that require movement and interaction.

                    “Emotions are the gatekeepers of the mind.”

Many years ago, I attended a workshop where the speaker wanted us to learn to buy stocks based on trusted market signals rather than emotions. He asked us to hold up a piece of paper and pretend it was a stock we had just bought. He asked us to kiss the stock. We felt silly, but we kissed it. He told us to hug the stock. We felt ridiculous, but we did it. What was the point? It’s just as silly and ridiculous to be emotionally attached to a stock! Although that seminar was seven years ago, I have never forgotten the point. 

New Information
Avoid using examples and statistics that your audience is already familiar with. As a speaker, you have probably heard something like this more than once: “Public speaking is ranked the highest fear among adults, even higher than the fear of death.” Though this is interesting, it is not unique. Put your own spin on an old quote. For example, you could add a tagline like: “I say public speaking is ranked the highest in fun among Toastmasters, even higher than the joy of ice cream.”

You might also share facts from recently published articles. Audience members should be saying, “I have never heard that,” or “I have never heard it explained that way.” New information requires the brain to process it, rather than ignore it. 

In fourth-grade math class, I memorized the following sentence: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” This sentence helped me to remember the order of operations, which are Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction. If you provide the audience with more than three points, look for a mnemonic device to aid long-term memory. 

Out-Think the Competition
Urgency is the name of today’s game! We receive urgent e-mails. We send urgent overnight express deliveries. Our co-workers send us emergency text messages at all hours. Your speech is competing with the urgent messages floating around in the minds of your listeners. Make sure to show the audience why your message is urgent and relevant enough to earn their attention, make them take notes and take up space in their brains. 

Use Repetition
Advertisers know that if you hear their short, silly jingle enough times, it will be ingrained in your memory. In fact, you can probably sing songs from commercials that have not aired in 10 years. Repetition works. The simpler the better. Repetition works. Try it. You will not be disappointed. Repetition works. 

What is the likelihood that your audience members will even think about you after leaving the auditorium, classroom or conference room? Give your audience an assignment so they will reflect on what you have said shortly after hearing you. For example, I want you to think about this article whenever you watch a commercial on television. Ask yourself, “Which one of these techniques did the advertisers use?”

  • Did they flash memorable images in front of you or did they tell a story?
  • Were they trying to bring in new information?
  • Did they repeat their slogan more than once?

This small trigger reminds your brain to think of this article again. As a speaker, give your audiences a task so they will ponder your words again in the future.

It is estimated that more information has been generated in the past 30 years than has been generated in the 2,000 years before it. We have unofficially moved from the Information Age into the Information Overload Age. Your audience members are receiving messages via TV, radio, cell phone, Internet, publications and books on a regular basis. Their brains will naturally disregard anything that does not appear to be relevant.

So help them out! Make it easy for them to remember your message. Apply one or two of these tricks and your audience will remember you for a few weeks. Apply three or four, and they might remember you for a few months. Apply all eight tricks and your speech will stand out in the minds of your listeners for a lifetime. 

Emily Osburne, ACB, is a member of Henry County Toastmasters in Stockbridge, Georgia. She is the author of Everyday Experts on Marriage and leads marriage workshops with her husband. Reach her at