A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine asked me to send him an article that I wrote while working as a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. I decided to read it again before sending it to him, as I didn’t remember much about it.
To my surprise, after reading the first pages I realised that I didn’t remember any of what I’d written at all. I didn’t remember the content, the references, or the authors cited in the footnotes. However, I could see myself at the university late in the evening, pouring coffee into a white mug and eating biscuits as I tried to continue writing after teaching until late in the afternoon. I could see myself wrapped in a green jacket when the heating went down and walking along the empty corridors to the library to consult some books.
I’ve retained many insignificant details in my head but none of the content of the article itself, nothing from the hours spent in the library reading about legality and legitimacy: all of this knowledge is gone. How is this possible?
I wonder if we retain information that makes sense to us emotionally better. Unless you’re a prodigy at memorising facts, arguments and dates, and obviously I’m not, the rest of us probably remember very little of all the books that we’ve read. Maya Angelou rightly said that we don’t remember what people said, but how they made us feel.
If the information doesn’t make sense in the emotional landscape of your audience, they won’t remember what you’ve said. But if you touch something inside them that resonates with how they feel or think about themselves, you will be remembered.
Stories are emotional facts that can be visualised and felt; they help people attach value and meaning to what they do, who they are, and how they feel.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks that people need facts and logic, think again. Understanding is not the same as remembering.