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The Magical Number 7

I’d tell you the answer but I’ve forgotten the question.

Only kidding.

For psychologists, short-term memory refers to things that are being used by your brain right now. For example, the words in this article are being stored in your short-term memory and will only be there for a short period. Nothing to do with me, you understand, it would be the same if you were reading someone who could really write. Hopefully, your brain extracts some meaning from these words and then this meaning is either stored or discarded. You may have some faint memory of the article by tomorrow but most of the actual words will be lost. And then in a few weeks from now when I receive a phone call from someone saying they liked what I wrote and want to book me to speak, neither of us will be able to remember a word I wrote.

So here’s a tip. From now on, forget seven, and try remembering just three or four things. This is often how we recall long numbers, by splitting them up into groups of three or four at a time. Mobile phone numbers, National Insurance numbers, passport numbers, we use the same technique for anything with more than four or five digits or characters.

But why is knowing that important? Well if you are making a presentation, you no doubt want your audience not only to process the information in their short-term memory but also consign it to their long term memory. Otherwise what’s the point?

So, stick to just three units of information for any one topic. Have just three bullet points on a Powerpoint slide. Because if you attempt to communicate any more there’s a danger that none will be recalled.

(The subject of a previous post and Sweller’s cognitive load theory.)

And make sure you know which are the most important three. What’s more, repeat the information at least once. This is because repeated information is known to stay in the short-term memory for up to 20 minutes as opposed to 20 seconds if said just once. So do like I just did and repeat everything at least once.

Now you are forgiven if you then ask why my newest book (an enjoyable romp through English history with the Seven Golden Rules for a Happy and Successful Life as a conclusion) has SEVEN rules and not THREE.

Fact is I just couldn’t distill down the conclusions of 226 years of history to simply three points. But I do know which are the most important three rules and they form the backbone of a KeyNote I regularly deliver.

Go to Amazon and type Philip Hesketh in the search box and the book comes up.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the theatre to check out their new, politically- correct version of a classic pantomime. Snow White and the Three Vertically Challenged Helpers.  Oh, and if you still can’t recall the other five wonders of the world here they are: The Statue of Zeus; The Temple of Artemis; The Mausoleum of Maussollos; the Colossus of Rhodes; and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Have a nice day and all the best for 2011.


Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion. His first book ‘How To Be More Persuasive and Influential’ is an Amazon best seller.

Philip Hesketh ~