Here's a simple question for you.

If you told employees that the company's growth goal is 2.3%, and then said nothing more about it, how long would they remember that fact?

A) 10 to 15 seconds

B) About a minute

C) 5 minutes

D) 10 minutes

The answer is A--and therein lies a challenge for leaders, especially when you're communicating a lot of facts.

The problem is the way humans are wired. As information enters our brain, it spends just seconds in our short-term memory, which acts as a buffer zone. Then short-term memory fills up quickly (with no more than five to nine chunks of information) and just as quickly empties. So if information isn't "treated"--if doesn't connect to something else or get experienced in some way--it drains away.

What that means to leaders, of course, is for employees retain what we have to say, we have to make sure that communication makes it into long-term memory.

How? Here are 5 ways:

  • Dramatically reduce the number of facts you share. When leaders communicate quarterly results, for example, they tend to include all the numbers they'd provide to analysts or bankers. But think about what employees really need to know--and what's important for them to retain. You can probably boil all that data down to three to five key facts.
  • Compare apples to oranges. A fact just hanging out there gives the brain nothing to hold onto. But create a comparison and employees can make connections. For example: "Our profits are just one-quarter of what we made last year."
  • Create a compelling visual. Charts and graphs? Yawn. But make the visual arresting--a photo of an elephant next to a mouse--and employees are more likely to pay attention, get the concept and remember it.
  • Tell a story. Human brains glom onto stories, which are like little movies in our minds. So rather than reporting on statistics for new customer acquisition, bring the facts to life: "We've attracted more new customers this year than ever before. In fact, I visited our sales department last week and they had filled a whole wall with Post-Its, each one representing a sales lead. The team was working 12 to 14 hours a day following up. They were so busy that they put me to work; I answered 15 emails before I could escape!"
  • Build participation. Just sitting there is terrible for retention. But give employees something to do--related, of course, to the topic you want them to retain--and they're much more engaged. For example, ask employees a question, "How can we attract more customers?", and have them break out into small groups to generate ideas. They'll remember the exercise, the ideas and the concept.

Notice that I keep referring to "concept", not fact. That's because the most important thing for employees to retain is the big idea--"we need more customers"--not the exact percentage of how many more customers we need. Once you move away from "just the facts," and concentrate on important concepts, you'll improve the effectiveness of your communication.

Just remember that the elephant (big concept) is much more important than the mouse (little fact). Got it?