Review: Eric Sentell’s Study, Making Memories: Writing and Designing More Memorable Documents

How many billboards can you recall from your commute to work? Can you recall any? If so, what was it that caught your attention? In an age of information, we have become exceptional at filtering out irrelevant material. According to a study conducted by Eric Sentell, our ability to recall is driven by our self-schema in which we assign value based on practicality, imagery, familiarity, unexpected elements, social currency, and emotional response.

The use of contrast and color are, arguably, what initially draws the reader’s eyes. Sentell’s study subjects more readily recalled documents with contrast in both short and long term scenarios.

It’s essential that the document is practical for the target audience. The reader needs to assign value to the document for him/her to encode it to long term memory.

Imagery allows readers to quickly interpret relevant data and also provides something to encode the information against for long-term memories.

A reader’s familiarity with a subject allows him/her to add to a collective knowledge making it easier to be encoded to memory. Documents often include the company’s marketing slogan or logo to provide the reader with a basis of knowledge for the information.

According to Sentell unfamiliarity can also play a role in encoding memories. “Juxtaposing the familiar and unfamiliar could not only attract attention through surprise but also help alter an existing schema or create a new one.” Revising the schema requires the reader to facilitate cognition and memory.

The social relevance of a document often prompts readers to share later meaning they encode the document to memory. “Gaining social approval is a fundamental human motivation, making information with social currency worth remembering.” Social relevance is one way that reader’s assign value to a document.

Social relevance often arouses an emotional response for readers. For example, if a commercial makes you laugh, you are more likely to remember that commercial to share with others. Emotion can be a powerful tool in creating memorable documents.

Creating documentation consists of more than words on paper; it requires developing an infrastructure that attracts—and keeps—the reader’s attention. Sentell’s study leaves room for future research but his results are beneficial to document designers. A document’s relevance, imagery, familiarity, unexpected elements, social currency, and emotion are important to reaching the reader.

Sentell, E. (2016, May). Making Memories: Writing and Designing More Memorable Documents. Technical Communication Online, 63(2), 136-153.

By Sara Buchanan