Be Remembered: How to Make Your Message Stick

Jan 11, 2018

By Shannon Thompson 

This is the shortest blog that I have written. Period. Its brevity is for your sake. The less I say the more you will remember. I’m going to tell you a story about how I have seen this to be true, and I’ll share the science that explains why. Then I’m going to leave it at that.

The story:

At Northern Arizona University we have a problem. There is no free time (sound familiar?). My office sits near the main door to the Athletics Department, so I’m a constant witness to the human traffic: its volume, its speed, its mood. Our student athletes train twenty hours per week. Academically, most of them manage a full course load. Volunteer hours are mandated. If I were to list the coaches’ responsibilities I would triple the length of this paragraph. I’m keeping this short, remember?

I love my work as a mental performance consultant, and I always want to do more. I’m valued at NAU, but sometimes finding time to implement my ideas amidst all the athletes’ other commitments is difficult. Last fall, Coach McDaniels (NAU’s sprint coach) and I discussed the need to improve his runners’ focus during the most strenuous parts of their training. Running involves pain tolerance, and with this these young athletes were struggling. Coach McDaniels and I were struggling also – to find the time for me to teach the athletes the focus strategies that could help them.

“They go from weights, to practice, to eat, then to study hall,” Coach McDaniels explained to me. He looked up at the ceiling, perhaps trying to find some extra hours up there. An idea came to me: “what if I were to come for the first 10 minutes of practice once a week?” I asked him. “I could teach them one strategy per week. I would cycle through about five different strategies, and then I could repeat the five, over and over until the end of the year. The athletes would we taught the same short strategy every five weeks throughout the course of the year.”

“Perfect,” said Coach McDaniels. “Lets try it.” I began my weekly visits that Friday.

I’ve grown to look forward to my short sprinter briefings. These runners are a vibrant crew, warm and extraverted. They gather around me attentively, and listen carefully to my strategy for the week. These sessions are extremely brief – always less than ten minutes. They have included belly breathing, positive word choice, mindfulness, and progressive relaxation. I come and go, in and out.

To me these interactions have felt effortless and fun. So much so that I’ve questioned their effectiveness. Could something so brief and easy be of value? There are no power points, cue cards, or handouts. There’s no need for me to rehearse what I have to say before coming. Are they taking any of this in? Is this helping?

“Shannon, I used breathing yesterday,” James told me while passing my office one day.

“The word I chose totally works!” mentioned Dana at practice recently, referring to the word she’d chosen to repeat to herself when her effort is high.

“I used progressive relaxation during my exams,” smiled Nicole, just yesterday.

“I think those short sessions are working,” I said to Coach McDaniels as we debriefed the fall season. “I know they are,” he told me confidently. Who would have guessed?

The Science

Interestingly, several people would have guessed. It’s common knowledge that our working memory is capable of holding about seven (plus or minus two) pieces of information in any one moment. So, when it comes to teaching content that is important for an audience to remember (as opposed to just entertaining them), it is good practice to keep key information to seven points or less. When it comes to teaching a strategy, seven pieces of information is actually quite limiting. Strategies are most likely to be adopted when people understand why they are adopting them (usually at least two units of information), then they must understand when to apply the strategy (one unit of info), and then how to implement the strategy (usually three to five units of information). You can see that by properly explaining one strategy I’ve already exceeded seven units of information. So, if I really want the athletes to understand each strategy I am limited to presenting one per session.

My intent for presenting focus control strategies to these athletes is that they will eventually use them independently. Behavior change experts emphasize the importance of making small changes, preferably one at a time, when attempting to create new habits. My hope is that these athletes will develop a habit of using these focus control strategies, so introducing them one at a time is in alignment with effective behavior change protocol.

The spacing of sessions also impacts long-term learning. Robert A. Bjork, Research Professor and learning expert at UCLA recommends that teachers space the review of subject matter until a student has almost forgotten it before reviewing the content again. The struggle involved in remembering previously learned content actually is better for long-term retention of the information. The five week stretches I’ve implemented between each session review seems to reflect this principle.

 The sprinters and I have just begun our second round of short focus control strategies. This experiment is just beginning. I’m encouraged by the feedback I’ve received from them so far, and even more so by their obvious eagerness to practice one strategy each week.

And that is all I will share today, because I want you to remember everything I’ve had to say.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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