Examples, especially in the form of stories, help us make sense of what someone is saying. This is partly because when we listen to an example we are using our natural pattern matching abilities (something our brain has evolved to excel in) to link the example with our own experience. We then adjust our understanding based on the new input.
So it makes sense that examples also increase our ability to remember the main idea they illustrate.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska put this idea to the test. They asked 22 students to read an essay about a fictitious African country. The essay consisted of 32 paragraphs, each paragraph with a single, main idea sentence followed by none to three one-sentence examples. Here is an example paragraph from the essay.
Virtually all social reforms of the early 20th Century were the personal responsibility of King Manual. A state run medical service was established by King Manual in 1900. A system of primary education was created under Manual’s direction in 1920. The forceable recruitment of native workers was stopped by Manual in 1915.
When they were done the researchers asked the students to recall the main ideas.
The result: the more examples (at least up to three), the better the recall of the main idea. The researchers suggest that the laws of diminishing returns must set in at some point. The likelihood of nine examples being more effective than eight is slight.
So why don’t we see many examples in the things we read, especially in business writing?
I suspect it takes more time to find an example and it’s much easier to espouse an opinion.
For example, I’m writing a client report at the moment and I’ve asked my client to send me a couple of examples illustratinh how their information system has been used to have a bottom-line and positive impact on the business. I also asked for examples of when the system had been misused or failed the organisation. My client could immediately think of examples of the latter and is still looking for our positive examples.
So maybe it’s harder to find the positive stories and business report writers have a tendency to want to show strength and a positive outlook, and this is more easily done, especially with time pressures, with opinions. The problem is, we are creating a false intellectual economy because without the examples your readers don’t know what you really mean and instantly forget the main ideas.
Palmere, M., S. L. Benton, et al. (1983). “Elaboration and Recall of Main Ideas in Prose.” Journal of Educational Psychology 75(6): 898-907.
I discovered this research reading John Medina’s Brain Rules.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:
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