Start Strong. Finish Strong. Illustrate in the Middle.

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You attend a TEDx event and easily remember the opening speaker and the concluding speaker.

You listen to a sales pitch and find yourself repeating the product attributes that the sales person discussed first and those that she mentioned last.

You were a research subject in the psychology laboratory of Hermann Ebbinghaus in the early 20th century and when presented with a list of made-up words you find yourself faithfully recalling those at the beginning and end of the list.[1]

You were a research subject in the laboratory of Solomon Asch in 1940’s New York and when asked to rate the likeability of two fictitious individuals you are swayed more heavily by the attributes presented at the beginning of the description and the attributes presented at the end of the description.[2]

In all these cases, you are experiencing the “serial position effect.”

Collectively the “serial position effect” describes how we are more likely to remember, and be influenced by, information presented at the beginning (“primacy effect”) and end (“recency effect”) of a list.

Converting these research findings into a real-world recipe for communication success means that you must:

  • start strong,

  • finish strong,

  • and illustrate in the middle.


Start strong
How often do speakers take the first moments of their presentation to thank the audience, issue a quick biography, or recite a fairly general explanation of what they will be talking about?

Contrast that with the speaker that immediately poses an engaging question, instantly challenges a deeply-held assumption, or dives headlong into the opening line of an illustrative story.

Capitalizing on our audiences’ heightened attention in the opening moments to engage, implant valuable information, and set a tone compatible with your message is leveraging the power of the “primacy effect.”

On the other hand, front-loading your presentation with bland background information is setting the stage for a rather forgettable performance.

Finish strong
“Ummm…so yeah…that’s all I have” is a classic conclusion issued by many presenters who may have diligently prepared the guts of their presentation but left the conclusion to chance. Not only is this uninspiring, but it also casts aside the entire value of the "recency effect."

Contrast that with a bold, direct conclusion that is the sum total of the information presented, something like, “To capitalize on current market trends, leverage our competitive advantage, and inspire our employees, we must tackle this ambitious launch…immediately!”

To seize the power of the "recency effect," craft your one-line conclusion as a grand summary of your presentation’s information. Pay particular attention to action words and efficiency.

Illustrate in the middle
If the beginning sets the stage and the conclusion powerfully delivers your call to action, the middle is necessary to reinforce and illustrate.

The “serial position effect” indicates that we are most likely to forget what comes in the middle.

To combat the doldrums of the middle, don’t present entirely new concepts in the body of your presentation. Instead use the middle to convey your facts and figures but in the context of illustrative stories and anecdotes. Bring your material to life by using the power of storytelling and relatable imagery.

All told, seize the power of the “serial position effect” by starting strong, finishing strong, and illustrating in the middle. It’s a surefire way to engage and persuade your audience.

[1] Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1913), On memory: A contribution to experiential psychology. New York, Teachers College[2] Asch, Solomon (1946). “Forming impressions of personality.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 41 (3): 258-290

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