Maps in the Mind: How to get people to remember your content!
When I travel, I love to ask strangers for directions. I always remember the people themselves—their gestures and cadence. The shade that falls on their faces beneath unfamiliar buildings and trees. The light that catches in their eyes. But I could never recall left or right, which street, how far. Nothing. I pretend to understand if only to be polite, smiling and waving behind me as my guide points the way.
For years, I assumed that I couldn’t change how I remember. If I was just a visual learner, there was no other way around it. I enjoyed being absorbed in the moment, but felt embarrassed when the facts flew over right my head. So I resigned myself to wander the streets in unwavering confusion after each encounter.
Later, I realized that I needed more than “just the facts.” I couldn’t remember because facts did not feel physical. The answer seemed like a jumble of words compared to my interest in the person explaining it, and awe for the new environment that surrounded me. I discovered that my problem did not come only from individual learning style. Instead, the solution came from understanding how memory works for everyone.
So I began to make maps in my mind.
How do we remember?
Memory builds through connections. The process of memory is like tracing a path on a map. The brain can find information with the most speed and accuracy when there are many routes to access it. It doesn’t work to try to remember each detail in isolation, as if you’re making a list.
When I need to ask for directions now, I envision the path as someone explains it to me. I try to imagine the spatial relationships. I make a mental picture of where the roads intersect. I link the names of the streets to visual cues, like knowing there is a church on the corner, or the color of a neon sign at the pharmacy next door.
We remember a fact based on its connection to other facts. But those connections form an umbrella, a category of coherent ideas. This is why we remember a moment through tactile details of the experience as it happened, as well as the context of that moment in a larger story.
Even in the open-ended world of the internet, human memory is still physical. The connections between ideas, feelings, and experiences are neurological. Memory is a trigger of synapses—the physical connections between nerve cells. Invoking the senses and relating ideas is how memory becomes physical, building synapses and new routes to remember.
The details of a memory may change over time, but the process of recall does not. Whether we are feeling nostalgic for childhood or summarizing a news article to a friend, the brain uses the same method to find and use memory. Understanding the sensory nature of memory helps to explain how content “sticks.”
Getting on the Map: 7 Ways to Make Content Matter
Unlike traveling in a new city, browsing the internet is not restricted by simple time and space. We don’t have to consider how far we can walk and if we know how to get there, if the museum is closed on Tuesdays, or if it rains too hard for a picnic.
The web is not a place but an ether. Geography disappears, and distance is no object. We can talk to people no matter where they live at a moment’s notice. We can access an unlimited amount of content at no additional cost, any time and as soon as we desire it.
Because we see and read so much online, it is often difficult to remember what we clicked and how we found it. We close and open countless tabs, and scroll through endless streams of words and images. We are so oversaturated in online media, it is rare that content makes a strong impression.
But human memory works in the same way on and off-line, no matter where we are or what we are doing:
— Long-term memory forms through connections.
— Short-term memory is based on need.
— Senses produce memory at its very root.
So the question remains: when we read online, without the surroundings of the sensory world, how do we make internet content memorable?
1. Stir the senses through suggestion.
Years ago, I saw the journalist Malcolm Gladwell give a lecture, and can still recall how he described stickiness. Quoting from his book The Tipping Point, Gladwell said stickiness is “the specific quality that a message needs to be successful.” A message is “sticky” not only if it is memorable, but if “it so memorable, in fact, that it can create change, that it can spur someone to action.”
The mass appeal of Gladwell’s ideas ranges from intellectual circles to popular television. Even his critics are awed by the way that Gladwell profits from his own tricks: his concepts are “counterintuitive, startling, yet immediately graspable. In other words, sticky — the supreme attribute for a successful meme. And thus [his content] spread,” writes Jeff Wise in Psychology Today. Whether or not Gladwell’s ideas are founded in solid research, his personal success shows that he is onto something— the thrust of the subliminal.
Attention does not peak most when we see flashing lights, but when ideas appear as ripe suggestions. When they arrive in our minds so fluidly, we must have thought of them ourselves. As constant consumers of words and ideas, we don’t take orders but impressions. To make content bold and memorable, it must speak this subtle language. The power of suggestion remains the most evocative.
2. Show, Don’t Tell.
The sensory memory is the gateway where we make our first impressions. It is the subliminal message we don’t think we remember, but has already touched us on a gut level. Like a Freudian slip that cuts to the chase, the rights words often find us by mistake. Yet the distance between “the right word” and “the almost right word” is insurmountable—as Mark Twain said, it is the difference between “lightning” and a “lightning bug.”
Renowned by the New York Times as the “media prophet of the 1960s,” critical theorist Marshall McLuhan thrived off a typo. McLuhan’s son recalled the tense moment when the re-edition of his revolutionary book, The Medium in the Message, arrived at the office misprinted. The book came back from the typesetter with a new name, The Medium is the Massage. Surrounded by stiff colleagues poised on the verge of profuse apology, McLuhan gasped, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”
McLuhan insisted that he couldn’t have said it better himself. The new title revealed the distance between showing and telling. Changing a single letter of word can change the entire meaning not only the title, but the book. The medium is, and must be, the message. No mode of expression remains detached from the physical world.
The carpenter must work with the grain, the painter must make color from pigment. There is no “perfect” medium, because all medium requires modification. The misprint proved the power of ambiguity to work in the artist’s favor. “Now there are four possible readings for the last word of the title,” McLuhan’s son concluded, “all of them accurate: ‘Message’ and ‘Mess Age,’ ‘Massage’ and ‘Mass Age.’”
McLuhan believed that the medium of communication determines not only its impact, but its audience. A recent article on NPR explained McLuhan’s theory simply: “how we consume information influences what we learn from it.” Who sees it and what they remember depends on where it is presented and how it is organized. As McLuhan wrote, the medium itself “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,” more so than what a piece of media actually intends to say.
Marshall McLuhan traced the tactics of publicity in the “Mass Age” to the an understanding of primal, human senses. Media is all-pervasive. Each encounter with media “works over us completely” that it “leaves no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage,” wrote McLuhan. Effective content owns this power without abusing it.
3. Create a sense of community and conversation.
The most dynamic use of media is ultimately a give-and-take: a balancing act that thrives in the tension between clarity and ambiguity, leaving room for the viewer’s imagination. Ideally, through skilled use of a medium, intent would align with interpretation. The creator could successfully engage the audience so that in the end, they understand each other.
But McLuhan questions if this method is really the best way, let alone, if such seamless communication is even possible. The creator must first understand the world of the viewer, and the context where the message will spread. Medium is not only a tool, but an environment.
Today, we use the internet to create a sense interconnectedness between far-reaching geographies. The digital age enables all people with internet access to communicate as if we are part of a “global village” – a prescient term coined by Marshall McLuhan himself. Hyperlinks allow us to connect content to other websites. Embedded multimedia or links help to create a map of ideas and conversations that mimic the interactions of people living in community.
Because concepts are not physical, we must reconcile the fact that we cannot control how, where, or when a user views content online. Web media is a 24/7 spectacle. In the digital age, media can better fulfill its role as an “environment” when we relate content to other material and conversations on the web. This allows users to make a map in their mind as they travel the web. This way, the content gains a context, and becomes easy to recall.
4. Mix Mediums
While McLuhan’s original book was only text, the misprinted edition was stylized and fully illustrated, incisive and poetic in its content. It is a happy accident that this second version received the name The Medium is the Massage, since it attempted to more directly affect the reader through the senses. Using an innovative format and captivating images in collaboration with graphic designer Quinton Fiore, McLuhan tailored the layout of text to express his message at every opportunity, with whole pages dedicated to single words, pictures, or poetic lists—
The process of remembering works less like a search engine than a metal detector. The mind is not a machine that relies on algorithms to find what we seek, but stories, hunches, and senses. This is why multimedia such as videos, interactive graphics, and images are vital tools to engage viewers on a sensory level. As McLuhan’s work shows, memorable content reads more like a collage than an essay, blending a wide range of mediums into a single, resounding message.
5. Avoid exaggeration.
Beyond the sensory memory, we remember out of need. It is easiest to retain information that is immediately useful— like the items of a grocery list scrawled at a moment’s notice. But if the need doesn’t last, neither does the information. The short-term memory is subject to “spontaneous decay,” as offhand thoughts lose the momentum of necessity every 10-15 seconds. When the grocery list turns up crumpled in a pocket or purse, weeks after we need it, we learn once again how haste makes waste– how we can even forget our own reminders if we make them in a hurry.
Because much of memory is based on need, making a product or idea seem indispensable is a common tactic to make it memorable. But this approach lacks spark. After more than a century of film and television, the bombardment of cloying advertisements amounts to beating a dead horse. Urgency falls flat on today’s audience, weary of every ringing phone, beeping app, and late-night infomercial depicting nothing more than melodrama.
Media technology now reaches us through so many commonplace devices that we are over-saturated with desperate pleas to the latest hoax and “our best self now.” This effort suggests a constant threat to our survival. Media conjures an anxiety that mirrors our oldest fears which ironically, technology has made irrelevant. We no longer need to grow food, but can buy it in the produce aisle. We no longer wait for letters to arrive, but type our thoughts straight into a text message. So why does the media insist we need more and more, newer and newer, bigger and better all the time? How can we believe this is still good for us when we’ve seen it all before?
To make content memorable, replace the urgent with the immediate. Choose images that captivate, not corner the viewer. Immediacy is the picture that says a thousand words. Urgency is the smattering of empty words meant to pack a punch. Originality catches the eye. If an unusual turn of phrase can say it best, then the road less traveled is a brilliant shortcut to making long-term memory.
6. Leave Space for Imagination.
I once heard a singer say that silence, not sound, makes music. The weight falls where there is space between. In the aftermath, a moment of silence, we can find our own thoughts and process our sensations. It is where the mind interprets what the ears just heard. The “in-between” moment is when the mind is able to recall. Memory itself works more like a montage. Sensations collide and override, then the mind leaps to make sense of it all.
Creating memory is the business of media. It is the art of the edit, where words and images mesh into an experience as unforgettable as moments we’ve lived ourselves. How much do we need to reveal to get the point across? What can we leave out to keep the message simple? Though our systems of writing and thinking seem linear, ideas grow between the lines. Contrast creates the connection. It is not a point but a counterpoint. A smooth transition goes unnoticed, but the moment in-between is exactly where we find the meaning.
7. Keep it simple and direct.
Sequence determines not only what we understand, but how we later translate that message into memory. The order of a series imbues how we think from beginning to end. The process appears straightforward, but the mind works best when it is free to move all over the map. The brain makes constant connections so that when one route fails, we still know where to find the lost idea. To remember any stored detail, we need plenty of back roads at hand.
The content of our very thoughts is shaped by the fact that the world is physical. We are hopelessly separate until a medium connects us. The medium itself is the message. Like dreams and stories which unfold in series, memory evolves from chronology: what comes first, what follows, and where it leads. The pace sets the tone, and sequence shapes an idea. Memorable content can find us when we are caught off guard, and create a new frame to look at ourselves. Memory is that breathless moment when we already know we won’t forget.