Working memory is the conscious memory that we use when we are recalling existing information from our internal memory storage, or matching incoming sensory information with existing knowledge as we decide what to do with the new.

The important word here is “working”. The more we actively process and organize the information that comes to us, the longer we will remember it. As you set up an appointment over your cell phone while walking to your office from your car, your working memory is where you hold the time and date until you write them down. That’s working memory.

Unfortunately Working Memory has two limits – storage time (about 30 seconds) and storage capacity (seven items or “chunks” of information, plus or minus two*).

Repetition is one reliable way to maintain information in working memory, until we can reliably connect to something already stored. But, if we don’t consciously do something with the new information, repeat it or “file” it, it will be lost.  Also, however much we repeat new information, we can never reliably hold more than three or four “chunks” of information at one time.  If we have a lot of new facts to remember, we need to distill them down and extract the key messages so we stay within this limit.

Notice how we work at the limit of our working memory capacity if we try to remember the list of numbers below as individual digits:

5  2  9  7  3  1  3  2  5 (seven digits)

Grouping the numbers into “chunks” makes memorization easier.

529  73  1325  (three chunks)

How Working Memory Applies to Your Presentation

If you want the audience to remember (and apply) the key messages of your presentation or accept the key points your argument, you must keep the list of key messages or key points as short as possible.

  1. Never ask an audience to remember more than three key points.
  2. Make sure you know (and can say) your three key points without hesitation in clear simple language
  3. Never pass up a chance to remind the audience what your key points are.

Hopefully you see why the number THREE is so crucial to any presentation. It really does serve as the pillar, the support system, for your content.