We Are Programmed to Forget – And How That Impacts Our Demos - Great Demo

We Are Programmed to Forget – And How That Impacts Our Demos

we are programmed to forget - what do we remember?

What’s in This Article for You?

  • How our brains process inputs
  • What is forgotten vs remembered in traditional demos
  • Three tactics to improve retention
  • Making your demos remarkable


What You Do and Don’t Remember

Imagine you are driving home from work or on an errand to a local store…

What do you remember about the cars and signs you see, the people, buildings, trees, roadside debris, and the other things you passed along the way? How much of that information is retained?

Very little!

Only a tiny fraction of what you see is actually remembered. Our brains are continuously evaluating what we see and hear as we move through our day and we are continuously discarding anything that is not considered important, threatening, or particularly interesting.

What don’t we remember? Everything that is typical, expected, or normal. We are, indeed, programmed to forget.

On the other hand, what do we remember?

Anything that is out of the ordinary: Remarkable events, problems, danger, and close calls; humorous things that made us laugh, events or things that made us angry, and incidents that caused a strong emotional reaction.

Try it!

The next time you drive or travel somewhere, evaluate what you remember from that trip. What we don’t remember are any of the specifics of the hundreds of cars we see or the people in them, the birds and planes in the air, the trees and grass along the road, and the signs marking the route. Everything that is unprecedented, typical, or normal is quickly forgotten. And I mean, quickly! Our brains make a very rapid decision regarding all inputs to determine, “Is it important or not?”

If it is not intriguing, dangerous, humorous, or sexually charged, it is discarded.

What we do remember from that trip, however, is the driver that nearly crashed into us, stunning scenery, a really unusual vehicle, or strong impressions, such as, “Wow – sure was a lot of traffic today!” (For U.S. folks, have you ever seen the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile? You’d likely remember it if you did!)

So, what does this have to do with demos?


Demos: What’s Forgotten?

How does the human brain’s rapid analysis of inputs impact what our audiences remember from our demos? In an hour-long traditional demo, we shouldn’t expect our audiences to remember very much:

  • They won’t remember long sequences of features, functions, and options. – They won’t remember complex workflows, loops, and multiple “if” or “or” cases.
  • They won’t remember the confusing interdependencies of configuration choices, multiple roles, and intertwined pathways.
  • And, amusingly, they often won’t remember what you referred to when you said, “Remember when I showed you the …?”

Their major memory will be one of being bored!


Demos: What’s Remembered?

What will audiences recall from traditional demos? The beginning, the end, and the ugly:

  • They will remember the first and last few things that are shown.
  • They will remember frantic fumbling for features, bugs that repeat, ignored or poorly handled questions, out-of-alignment data or terms, and amusing distractions (e.g., audience winners of Buzzword Bingo!).
  • And they will remember an overall impression of the demo as being boring, confusing, and too complicated.

Fascinatingly, they may also remember the absence of capabilities they were looking for but didn’t see. It is actually insulting to prospects if these capabilities were discussed in discovery but then ignored in the demo.

An even more intriguing reality is when these capabilities were presented but were lost and forgotten in the fuddled fog of functions and the murky forest of features!

What can we do to improve our success rates?


Memory Management

Here are three simple (yet very effective!) tactics to help your prospects retain the key ideas you want them to remember:

  1. Shall we all say it together? “Do the Last Thing First!” When presented with a long list of ideas, people remember the first few items quite well and the last item or two moderately well, but the material in the middle generally gets lost. This is the “Attention-Retention” principle (also known as the Serial Positioning Effect).
    Take advantage of this and start your demos with the most compelling, most interesting deliverables for each job title in your audience. If they remember nothing else, they will retain the most important part of your demo: The payoff, and the visual evidence of the solution to their problem (known as an Illustration in Great Demo! methodology).
  2. Next, people absorb and retain information best when it is presented in discrete “chunks”, as opposed to a long linear flow. Organize and present your demos accordingly, in consumable components, and use an agenda or demo roadmap to help manage the delivery of your component chunks.
  3. Summarize…! Adults learn by repetition. Adults learn by repetition. (Let me say that again…) So, when you complete a demo segment, summarize! Crisply review what you just showed them. If you see your audience nodding their heads, it means they have heard you, they understand, and they have a higher likelihood of remembering your point.

Bonus: If you see audience members making notes, pause and let them finish before moving on. They’ll appreciate it and it tells you that your last idea resonated.

These simple tactics can help you combat your audiences’ natural tendencies to discard information that is not otherwise perceived as memorable.


Make It Truly Remarkable

What else can we do to help audiences remember our demos? Anything that is perceived as remarkable is going to enjoy much stronger retention. For example:

  • Presenting a novel solution to a problem: “Wow! I had no idea that was possible!” This can often be accomplished via a Vision Generation Demo or Vision Reengineering (See Chapter 11 in Great Demo! or the Vision Reengineering segments in Doing Discovery).
  • Applying Inverted Pyramid: “Cool! They showed us the key reports that we needed right at the beginning of their demo. And they showed accessing those reports in a single mouse click for each, as opposed to what is taking us a week to do today…!”
  • Changing things up: “Whoa! They invited Pat to drive a portion of their demo and Pat made it look really easy…!”
  • Developing concepts or materials ad hoc: “It was great when they built a new dashboard for us, developing it first on a whiteboard and then completing it in their software…!”
  • Making it a two-way conversation: “We were really engaged, asking questions and even coming up with new ideas for our process…”
  • Finishing early: “Holy cow! They finished early and I had time to get some real work done…!”
  • Being humorous, but effective: “Whew! It was funny when the sales guy said, “The bad news is I have a 60-slide corporate overview presentation to show… The good news is that I’m not going to inflict it on you…!”
  • Using props and visual aids: “Do you remember when their technical guy came into the room with that huge stack of documents and folders spilling all over the place? It sure looked like our day-to-day lives…!”
  • Running their examples: “Hey! That was really nice – we rarely take something of value away from a demo…”

Humans are, by nature, programmed to forget. By causatively forgetting the unimportant, the uninteresting, and the unremarkable, our brains are able to handle the enormous volume of information we encounter every day. Our brains do their best to retain only the information that is truly important. (My brain is clearly imperfect, however, as I still remember childhood phone numbers, addresses, etc. that ceased being relevant long ago!)

Make your demos memorable by Doing the Last Thing First, organizing your delivery in consumable components, and summarizing – as basics. Make your demos truly unforgettable by doing the unexpected, the noteworthy, and the truly remarkable!


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To learn the methods introduced above, consider enrolling in a Great Demo! Doing Discovery or Demonstration Skills Workshop. For more demo and discovery tips, best practices, tools, and techniques, explore our books, blog, and articles on the Resources pages of our website at GreatDemo.com and join the Great Demo! & Doing Discovery LinkedIn Group to learn from others and share your experiences

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