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Increase Your Influence with Primacy and Recency

A woman is interviewed by two men and a woman in a business meeting


By John Millen

When I’d been out of college for a year working at Procter & Gamble, I decided I wanted to explore politics since I’d been student body president at a California State University and thought I might like to run for office someday.

I applied for a year-long fellowship to work in the California Senate. It was a prestigious job that got more than 350 applications for 12 slots, with many graduates of Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

I was uncertain of my chances but was lucky enough to be a finalist. I was one of 36 candidates that would be interviewed over three days. 

Each candidate would be interviewed for 30 minutes by a panel of Senate staff members –– three Democrats and three Republicans. This was back when the two parties were on speaking terms. ;-)

I got what some people might consider an unlucky draw: I would be the last person interviewed. Fortunately, I knew that this was actually a lucky break because I could make use of a principle of communication that would increase my chances of success.

When I entered the room at 4:30 pm on a Friday afternoon, I saw six tired-looking people. They had listened to 35 people tell their stories. The woman leading the discussion welcomed me and said I had 10 minutes to make an opening statement and they would be asking me questions for 20 minutes.

I don’t remember my exact words of my brief talk but it was essentially this:

I appreciate your time today. I know you’ve had a long three days. You’ve probably been listening to people listing their great accomplishments, so I’m not going bore you with my qualifications. I’ll just say that none of us would be here if we weren’t qualified.

All you need to know about me is I was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to support me and my brother. She taught us to work hard and give our best every day. She also demanded that we treat everyone with the same respect, whether they’re the CEO or the janitor, because we’re all just people.

I know you’ve seen a lot of candidates with prestigious resumes. I can’t match their status, but I can tell that if you choose me for this important role no one will work harder than I will. I promise you’ll never regret taking a chance on me. Thank you.

The room went completely quiet with all six of them just looking at me kind of stunned. Then they started looking at each other. The leader said, “Well, we probably should ask you a couple of questions.” 

Then they asked me two or three questions I don’t remember and I gave brief answers and it was over in less than ten minutes.

I got the fellowship and, in fact, two Senate Offices fought over me (I was told by a staff member later) and I landed the top job in the office of the leader of the Senate.

I attribute my hiring to the principle of recency, which I’ll discuss in this article.

(As a footnote, I worked in government and politics for a few years and decided it wasn’t for me, so I returned to business, which I love.)

The power of primacy and recency

And in the world of business, effective communication is a cornerstone of success. Whether you're making a presentation, pitching a sales proposal or trying to influence a critical decision, how and when you deliver your message can make all the difference. 

Two communication principles that can significantly impact your effectiveness are primacy and recency. Let’s explore these principles and I’ll provide you with practical tips on how to leverage them to your advantage, ultimately making your business presentations more persuasive and memorable.

Primacy and recency are two essential concepts derived from the “serial position effect", a psychological phenomenon related to the order in which information is presented and its impact on memory and decision-making.

At its core, this means that what comes first and last is more likely to be remembered, and thus more likely to be acted upon. People forget what they hear in the “mushy middle.”

For example, if you’re one of multiple presenters trying to win a new client’s business, it’s better to present first or last. 

Let's take a look at each of these principles and see how you can use them to benefit your business communication.

Primacy: start strong

Primacy suggests that information and impressions at the beginning of a presentation have a more lasting impact on the audience. It's the first impression that lingers and sets the tone for the rest of the interaction. 

When making a sales pitch or internal proposal, remember that the first few minutes are crucial. Start with a compelling introduction that highlights the pain points your product or service can solve. Convey the value proposition early, and establish trust by showcasing your company's reputation or success stories.

To make the most of primacy, consider these tips for your next presentation:

  1. Craft a powerful opening: Begin with a captivating story, a surprising fact, a thought-provoking question or a compelling quote. This sets the stage for a memorable presentation.
  2. Establish your credibility: In the opening moments, establish your expertise and credibility. Share relevant qualifications or experiences that demonstrate your authority on the topic.
  3. Clearly define your purpose: Articulate your main message or goal early on. This helps your audience understand what to expect and why they should pay attention.
  4. Engage your audience: Use interactive elements, such as audience participation or multimedia, to create a sense of involvement right from the start.

When aiming to influence a decision or gain buy-in from people, kickstart your communication with a clear and concise summary. Highlight the core benefits and potential outcomes of your proposal. Help your listeners understand the "why" early, setting the context for the rest of the conversation.

Recency: finish stronger

Recency, on the other hand, is about ensuring that the closing moments of your presentation leave a strong impression. It's the last thing your audience remembers, influencing their overall perception. 

In sales or other presentations, recency is about sealing the deal. During the conclusion, summarize the benefits and features, reiterate your unique selling points and end with a persuasive call to action. 

Here's how you can harness the power of recency:

  1. Summarize your key points: In your conclusion, recap the main takeaways of your presentation. This reinforces the most critical information in your audience's minds.
  2. End with a call to action: If you want your audience to take specific steps after your presentation, end with a clear and compelling call to action.
  3. Leave a lasting impression: The final moments are an opportunity to leave a lasting impression. Share a memorable anecdote, a powerful quote or an inspiring message that resonates with your audience.
  4. Engage in Q&A: Conclude with a brief question and answer session, allowing the audience to interact and clarify any doubts.

To secure your desired outcome, end your communication on a high note. Summarize the key arguments or benefits, re-emphasize the impact of your proposal and clearly state the next steps or actions required. Ensure that the closing message aligns with your audience's interests and needs.

In the realm of business presentations, primacy and recency are invaluable tools for engaging, persuading and making your message memorable. 

By starting strong and ending even stronger, you can leave a lasting impact on your audience and increase your chances of success.

Whether it's closing a sale, gaining approval for a project or inspiring your team, primacy and recency are your keys to unlocking success in the art of communication.


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John Millen

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