The concept of ‘False Memory’ has been in the news this week, with NBC news anchor Brian Williams being suspended after his bosses were forced to consider why he had claimed incorrectly to have been in a helicopter that was shot at during the Iraq war. Had he been lying, exaggerating or suffering from ‘False Memory’? The latter sounded unlikely but is perfectly possible, according to Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, who contributed to a Newsnight discussion on the topic. See here (until mid-March 2015, starting at 40.42).
Williams' slip up was less surprising to those of us in the magic community, who exploit the False Memory principle somewhat shamelessly. A lovely example came up last night when the much-admired American magician Wayne Houchin lectured at The Magic Circle. Among the items he demonstrated and taught to us were: 1) Sucking a thread into his mouth and pulling it back out through his eye 2) Swallowing a needle, followed by some thread; then pulling the thread back out, with the needle attached. Later he advised us that it was a good idea to perform both of these tricks in the same show – because False Memory Syndrome kicks in. Audience members, he said, come up to him afterwards congratulating him on ‘swallowing the needle and pulling it back out through his eye’. “I just keep quiet and thank them” said Houchin, “because that is a lot more impressive than what I actually did”!
So the message for business presenters is: ‘Don’t let False Memory get the better of you and your message’. I have written before in various ways about the need for high focus and aiming for the ideal of basing your presentation around ‘one big message’. The dangers of False Memory, it seems to me, provide another compelling reason to maintain high focus. If you tell your audience a list of things they might remember none of them; tell them one big thing and you’re in with a chance. And if your audience members are anything like Brian Williams - ‘America’s Huw Edwards’, according to Newsnight’s Evan Davis - they might get that list of things mixed up to create a whole new perception!
Finally, to anyone thinking of seeking help to exploit False Memories to their benefit in the way magicians do, I would have to say: “that would be devious; magicians are paid to be devious; it’s not such a good idea in the business world! Let's talk instead about 'underlining' and 'bringing life' to your message."