In a fascinating book, Origins of the human mind, Canadian psychology Melvin Donald suggests that humans are three distinct evolutionary stages above apes in terms of our cognition. These steps are all related to an ability to better communicate with others. The first stage was learning to mime to demonstrate our wants and desires; then the development of language to communicate rich concepts and thoughts; and finally, the ability to store our communication externally – writing.

Donald’s point is an important one, the human mind hasn’t necessarily got smarter in itself, rather we’ve found ways to game the system. To work round our limitations. Firstly, by miming, then creating language, and ultimately by extending the capacity of memory by storing it elsewhere.

In fact, it’s common knowledge that human memory is relatively poor. In a seminal paper – The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two – psychologist George Miller showed that humans can only hold seven objects in their mind (plus or minus two) at any one time. A fact so rigorously proven it’s now referred to as Miller’s Law.
As Donald Norman, an expert in human-centered design, notes in his book Things that make us smart, ‘Our working memory is limited in capacity. It’s very difficult to do complex problem-solving in our heads.’ Barring exceptional, well, exceptions (such as Peter Hilton, one of the code breakers at Bletchley Park in the UK during World War Two, whom it was rumoured could hold two sets of 20 letter codes in his head, running them across each other in his mind’s eye to look for correlations) humans just can’t hold too much information in their brain at any one time. Rather, suggests Norman, ‘humans have managed to overcome limitations of brainpower by inventing external devices to aid in thought.’

Much easier, instead, to create what psychologists call external memory, putting our thoughts and ideas down on paper so as to remove the burden of memory.

Thinking is hard. Our brains use up 20% of the body’s energy doing it. But it becomes much harder to both remember information and think about it. It’s why we write down long division; it’s very difficult to both hold different numbers in your short-term memory and manipulate them. Much easier, instead, to create what psychologists call external memory, putting our thoughts and ideas down on paper so as to remove the burden of memory. Freeing the mind to only think about those ideas.

This is a solution not lost on university faculties. A number of universities recommend prewriting –preliminary notes that precede the actual writing of a university paper. Prewriting can take many forms, from purely jotting down facts and figures to more elaborate suggestions, such as mind mapping (in fact Berkeley University lists 5 different types of pre-writing). The point is that it is much easier to write down all the information you have in your mind – removing the need to remember it – allowing yourself to focus only on thinking and analysing that information.

And yet.

it’s often that as researchers we don’t take this step to prewrite, to create an external memory. Rather we jump straight to writing our thoughts into PowerPoint or Word, working straight from memory. Forcing ourselves to both remember the salient points from the focus groups, or various stats from the online survey, or key insight from the ethnography and bring them together into a cohesive thought about what all this means.

But it is much easier to turn to the tools of our childhood, pens and paper, and write down our memories of the data as they occur to us. In this way, it’s much easier to see the big picture, how different pieces of data fit together, how the flow can be perfected, what pieces are redundant and what are the most compelling findings to celebrate.

Though it can be more time-consuming at the start to prewrite your presentation, you will ultimately find yourself creating a much more succinct, powerful and compelling presentation. By embracing the power of external memory and allowing your brain to focus on finding the insights.