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Primacy and Recency Theories in a Speech


The organization of a speech matters, because the first and last moments stick longest in an audience's memory. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the primacy and recency effect, respectively. Making an impact on listeners requires studying how these first and last impressions affect their views of a speaker's credibility. Figuring how to capitalize on primacy and recency effects is an important part of writing speeches that engage your audience.

Discovery and Origin

German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus first described the primacy and recency effect during the 1880s after conducting a series of experiments to determine how human memory worked. The experiments focused on lists of nonsense syllables that Ebbinghaus sought to memorize. In doing so, he found items near the beginning and end of a list easier to memorize than those in the middle, according to Bruce Abbott, a psychology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Effects and Consequences

Impressions are crucial in assessing a speaker's credibility, which is why you should understand how primacy and recency affect audience perceptions, asserts Ira Rosofsky in a February 2010 column for "Psychology Today." Primacy effects come into play as you begin speaking, because the audience is processing your earliest points with a fresh mind. Likewise, the last impression determines whether a listener accepts your premise, so a strong conclusion is crucial.

Tips for Introductions

Presenters who understand the primacy effect pay particular attention to how a speech starts. In 60 seconds, you should open with an attention-getting joke or anecdote that immediately establishes your main point, according to the University of Pittsburgh's overview, "Speaking in the Disciplines." Avoid rhetorical questions, which are less likely to engage listeners. Just summarize the main points you'll cover, followed by a brief pause or transition to show you're moving into the body of your speech.

Tips for Conclusions

The recency effect's premise is that the final impressions are often the longest-lasting, which makes your speech's conclusion as important as -- if not more important than -- its introduction. Several good options exist. For example, you can refer to the main idea again or summarize it with a clever analogy or metaphor, as "Speaking in the Disciplines" suggests. Alternatively, close with a question or challenge for your audience to ponder. For best results, keep your conclusion shorter than the introduction.

Other Considerations

Consistency is crucial. As the Business Know-How website suggests in its article "The Seven Essentials of Business Communication," a speaker who opens with an outrageous, attention-grabbing statement -- something sexually suggestive, for example -- loses credibility if he doesn't tie that idea somehow to the content. Likewise, a conclusion that doesn't underscore your main points undermines the recency effect's power and disappoints your audience.

About the Author

Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.

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