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Does your marketing have a case of TMI? Probably.

Why a basic grasp of working memory is the key to effective marketing


One of the most frustrating things about being human is ...

Wait, what was I about to say? ...

Oh, yeah: Forgetfulness.

You walk into your kitchen with an armful of groceries and only then do you realize you forgot to buy milk. You leave your gloves in the passenger seat of a rental car.

But what may be the most frustrating thing about this tendency is the way people forget 90% of what we tell them.

If you want people to remember your brand message (which is another way of saying, if you want to make money), a basic appreciation for the way working memory functions is helpful.

Working memory stinks

Your working memory is the number of things you're able to keep track of at any given moment. The gist of the most widely cited research on working memory is the “7, Plus or Minus 2” rule, also known as “Miller’s Law” after Harvard psychologist George Miller.

“Everyone knows our working memory stinks,” explains Joshua Foer in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.  “Miller’s [research] explained that it stinks within very specific parameters.  Some people can hold as few as five things in their head at any given time, a few people can hold as many as nine, but the ‘magical number seven’ seems to be the universal carrying capacity of our short-term working memory.  To make matters worse, those seven things only stick around for a few seconds, and often not at all if we’re distracted.”

In much the same way, we can group up to seven things (give or take) into a single data point based on some meaningful similarity or association.  This is referred to as clustering, or chunking.  It’s why you don’t have to remember an area code as three discrete numbers.

Chunking allows us to process more data, recognize patterns and make simple choices without undue effort.  So, chunking expands the capacity of our working memories.

Juggling bean bags: What’s essential, what’s merely interesting?

If you're lucky enough to get a customer's attention in the first place, it's safe to say they already have at least three or four things on their mind: an email they need to respond to, a recent conversation they're ruminating on, their kid's test scores, or meeting a friend for a beer after work. Think of those things as bean bags.

Few people can actually juggle seven bean bags at once, but pretend that’s par. It will make this a useful analogy. Say you run into someone who's juggling five bean bags. You say, “Hey, I think you'll like this,” and toss him one more. That he can handle. And if it’s interesting, he will. He might not juggle it all day, but he'll put it away somewhere he can reference it in the near future. This is success.

But that isn't anything like the way most people do marketing. We say, “Hey, check this out — plus, X, Y and Z!”

If you haven’t done the difficult work (and it is difficult) of separating what is essential from what is merely interesting, your listener drops all the bean bags.

Bells, whistles, shiny objects

For each thing a potential customer might find interesting about your business, there are 10 things you find interesting about it. Few companies ever come to terms with this. But as far as your customers are concerned, your favorite shiny objects are just clutter.

These common mistakes cost businesses money:

  • Failing to distinguish between what’s essential and what’s merely interesting
  • Inadvertent use of jargon
  • Failing to define the problem you solve using language your customers use and relate to
  • Noise!

Bottom line up-front

Make your key points succinct and clear, then, if you have a lot of information to add to them, group those subordinate ideas under the key points. That way people focus on what’s essential first and refer to interesting or useful details when they need to.

Short, punchy brand messaging is a competitive advantage in a noisy market. Advertisers: keep it simple.

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John Garvey

John Garvey is a copywriter, marketing consultant and StoryBrand certified guide. Garvey helps entrepreneurs and managers achieve greater impact and win high-value clients. In order to ensure businesses aren't held back by humdrum marketing, he applies a 7-part framework that helps businesses prosper using clear, enticing language and moving customer stories. To learn more about Garvey and to download his free 7-part framework visit: www.GarvingtonCreative.com.

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