The ways in which people embed collective memories can help you develop your corporate history, anniversary campaign, or even your “About Us” web page in ways that stick. Let’s look at an experiment conducted across 35 years by Washington University professors Henry L. Roediger III (a psychologist) and James Wertsch (an anthropologist). Using the subject of U.S. presidents, they tested how people remember major events and what factors make memories endure. The takeaways are three effects that corporate historians, speechwriters, and brand managers can use to amazing advantage.
1) The primacy effect, or the tendency to remember firsts. For example, if given five minutes to name all the American presidents you can remember, you will likely start with George Washington. For corporate histories, this is the easiest effect—you’d be sure to include all the “firsts” in your organization, from the founder’s original motivation to the newest and most successful innovation. Early history is always the least controversial part of any history-gathering effort, simply because enough time has passed to make it “history.” Audiences love to read and hear about what was (or is) novel and new.
2) The recency effect, or the dominance of short-term memory. In the experiment, people were most likely to list the presidents they remember from their lifetime. In corporate history terms, recent history (also known as “the last chapter”) always undergoes the most revision, mostly because not enough time has passed. Last year’s corporate initiative may be next year’s forgotten idea.
3) The narrative effect, which is the most relevant one. Whether it’s a US president, a company president, an organization, or a brand, what matters is what is memorable, lasting, and pass-downable – in short, what is story-worthy. Almost every U.S. citizen can recount a story or two about Washington, Abe Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy. By contrast, very few can name or describe, say, William Henry Harrison or Grover Cleveland. All I know about these presidents, for example, is that my street and the adjacent street are named for them. Excavating and developing the narrative of a company: these skills are an art and craft, developed through experience, and definitely best assigned to a professional corporate historian.