Making Writing More Memorable and Persuasive
In the last week, you’ve reviewed a couple hundred grant proposals. Or skimmed a couple hundred CVs and cover letters. Or graded a hundred papers. Which proposal will you advocate for? Which candidate will you pound the table to interview? Which student will you write an enthusiastic recommendation for when asked two years later?
Probably the most memorable one.
To act on information, it needs to be in long-term memory so that it’s accessible when needed and can exert a lasting, formative impact.
Sure, you can always reread or look something up, but compelling communication sticks with you. It resides among the long-term memories that make you you, influencing your perspective, attitudes, and beliefs.
Schema theory can help you achieve compelling, influential memorability in your grant proposals, scholarly articles, and other writing.
A Ghost Story Reveals How Memory Uses Schema
Schema theory dates to Sir Frederick Bartlett’s seminal work, Remembering.
In one of several studies he recounts, Bartlett had white, middle-class British subjects read and then recall a Native American ghost story. Invariably, they added, deleted, exaggerated, or downplayed various details. Yet they insisted they recalled the story as it was written.
Significantly, the British participants changed the culturally unfamiliar details and replaced them with more familiar versions. Some people went so far as to take the ghost out of the ghost story! When questioned about their recollections, the subjects insisted they were recalling the story as it was originally told. Bartlett realized that their memories weren’t faulty; rather, human memory is reconstructive: we reconstruct events and information in the process of recalling them.
So-called “memory gaffes,” such as Brian Williams embellishing a story of his war journalism the more he retold it, become much more explicable and innocent when we realize that people often (re)combine experiences and information from various sources into a new memory so unified that we can’t disentangle which information came from which source.
Our reconstructions often involve schemata, or organized conceptual frameworks, that help structure and facilitate our cognition. Bartlett’s British subjects lacked schemata for details specific to Native American culture, so their reconstructions of the ghost story transformed those details so that they fit into their existing schemata. Brian Williams’ schemata probably included the danger of getting shot down by a missile and stories of other helicopters meeting that fate.
In a widely-cited study, Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated that people overestimate the speed of cars in a traffic accident if an interviewer asks, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” as opposed to verbs like “hit” or “collided.” Some people even recalled broken glass on the pavement even though there was none!
The word “smashed” affected the subjects’ reconstruction of the accident. “Smashed” activated a different schema for car accidents than, say, “bumped.” Many similar misinformation studies have confirmed memory’s reconstructive, malleable nature.
If memory is reconstructive, then communication can either facilitate or impede effective, accurate reconstruction.
High School Flyers and Self-Schema Filters
We have schemata for all manner of things, including ourselves. A “self-schema” can be described as an organized conceptual framework about oneself. For an NIH study section member, it might include a combination of physician, infectious disease specialist, experienced collaborator with radiologists and engineers, and eagerness to support projects that propose unique uses of radiologic techniques and equipment in the setting of infectious disease.
Our senses are bombarded by countless stimuli per second, and self-schemata filter those stimuli so that we pay attention only to what’s important. Self-schemata affect whether we notice something, how much attention we pay to it, and whether we try to encode it into long-term memory.
I asked twenty people, ten teachers and ten students, to walk down a high school hallway and report the flyers and posters they recalled. Theoretically, everyone should have remembered the flyers and posters with certain memorable characteristics, such as colorful imagery. This happened, but more commonly, the subjects’ self-schemata determined what they remembered.
Both the teachers and students remembered things that were relevant to their self-schemata. The teachers primarily remembered flyers about upcoming school club meetings or ACT exam dates in case their students asked. The students mainly remembered posters and flyers that connected with their identities.
As the lone subject who noticed a flyer about a gun raffle said, “I noticed and remembered it because I’m a hunter, and I’d like to win a new deer rifle.”
How Schema Make Information Memorable
Schema create memorability in (at least) two ways:
- Engaging Existing Schema for the Topic
- Engaging Relevant Self-Schema
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath capture how schemata can make information easier to understand and more memorable. You could explain a pomelo in technical detail, the Heaths say, by describing its size, shape, color, texture, etc. Or you could say that it’s like a grapefruit.
We form schema to facilitate cognition and memory, so we naturally update and refine them when we learn new information. The audience can easily update their schema for grapefruit to include pomelos as similar fruit, rather than the more difficult task of creating a brand new schema for pomelos.
Your audience will almost always have existing schemata for the topic at hand. If you can activate those schemata and help the audience incorporate new information into them, then your communication will be much more memorable and effective.
To be most memorable and compelling, you can also activate the audience’s self-schema. Your information will pass through the audience’s attentional filter and connect with them personally and emotionally.
Example of Making Information Memorable
Unless they’ve recently emerged from filming a reality TV show, current readers will be well-acquainted with COVID-19, social distancing, contact tracing, testing, and vaccine development. They may or may not be familiar with using specific UV wavelengths to kill bacteria and viruses without harming human tissue, sanitizing occupied rooms.
To make a proposal for NIH funding to test the efficacy of narrow-wavelength UV light more memorable and compelling, you might write something like the following:
A vaccine’s ultimate purpose is to safeguard society through herd immunity. Yet herd immunity against COVID-19 will be elusive due to unequal vaccine distribution, the anti-vaxxing movement, and SARS-CoV-2 mutations. We propose to test whether novel short-wavelength UV light can effectively kill viruses and sanitize public spaces, offices, homes, clothing, groceries, and household items without affecting human eyes, skin, or other tissues. If successful, this novel technology can help secure public health and economic reopening regardless of vaccine production, distribution, or compliance.
The opening sentence activates the NIH reviewer’s self-schema as a medical expert. It screams professional relevance while also appealing to the personal desire to help people. It aims to make the reviewer nod in agreement. Pushing through the attentional filter of self-schema, the sentence ensures full attention and connects emotionally.
The next sentences tap into existing schemata implying reams of information about attaining herd immunity and resuming normal-ish life. They also help the reviewer incorporate the proposed technology into existing schemata for killing viruses and disinfecting public spaces, etc., imagining how it could work and how impactful it could be.
For more advice on aligning your grant application with organizational values, read my post on audience-based rhetoric. Go ahead and open a new tab. The conclusion isn’t going anywhere.
Giving some thought to your audience’s self-schema can help your writing stand out and ”stick” with readers. Try to appeal to the readers’ images of themselves and to ground new ideas in existing, familiar concepts.
Tapping into existing schemata for your topic can help you communicate more clearly, efficiently, and memorably. And memorable communication can influence future judgments, decisions, and actions.
Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker. Learn more about his work at EricSentel.medium.com.