Hacking the Magical Number Seven With Storytelling

number7Our short-term memory is widely believed to have a capacity of seven elements, plus or minus two. This assumption has influenced a number of major decisions — it’s the reason that U.S. phone numbers have seven digits, for example. There are ways to trick your brain into being able to store more than seven (plus or minus two) items, however. One example of a hack around the limit is described in George Miller’s 1956 paper “The Magical Number Seven.

Most people can only reliably differentiate between six tones on an absolute basis (people with perfect pitch, or roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population, can do so among up to 50-60 pitches, according to Miller), so the rest of us use relative pitch to differentiate amongst a wider range of tones.

Another approach is to connect items through a story. Stories serve as one of mankind’s most efficient compression algorithms, allowing people to dramatically exceed the seven-item limit. If you want to show your boss how hard you’ve worked, pack your presentation with data, charts, and bullet points — but if you want to have an impact, tell a story. The same goes for building great products, effective advertising and selling yourself as a candidate for a job.

What We Can Learn From World Memory Champions

How can someone remember the order of a random deck of cards in 25 seconds? That’s what current World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore has done. The previous champion, Andi Bell, can review 10 packs of cards (520 cards) in 20 minutes and then recall the details of every card by position. They both accomplish these memory feats by turning each card into some unrelated mental image and then linking the images together with a story. For more on Bell’s strategy, check out the BBC video embedded below.


While Pridmore and Bell spend endless hours honing their craft, producers (of any type of content) can deliver value to consumers — be they a boss, customer or interviewer — by packaging content in the form of a story.

Applied Storytelling:  The Pitch, the Resume, and the Product

1.  The Pitch.

After spending many years preparing presentations in which I would ask for resources, try to sell an idea or evangelize to existing customers, I now find myself on the receiving end of several pitches on an almost daily basis. Without exception, the most effective presenters tell a story.

Don’t start your presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote — start with a storyboard. Take a sheet of paper or whiteboard, divide it into a few sections with horizontal and vertical lines, and write the storyline at the top of each slide. After you’ve nailed down your narrative, think about the images, videos and supporting examples that you can use to tell your story. If you do presentations with any frequency, buy “Beyond Bullet Points” or “Presentation Zen.” Your presentations will improve dramatically with a little practice.

2.  The Resume.

If you don’t tell a story about your background, the interviewer will invent her own. So think about the story you want to tell about yourself before you craft your resume. You should obviously be honest, but you can craft the text of your resume and your interview pitch in a way that will leave the interviewer with the key points you want to get across rather than just a general impression of you based on what school you went to or how you dress.

And practice telling your story. First to yourself, then to your friends — over and over. No matter how impressive your accomplishments, your audience will have a hard time remembering them if all you do is offer a laundry list of disparate facts.

3.  The Product.

Disneyland is an incredible place, but as I noticed recently, many of the rides are actually very similar to those found in other amusement parks. Yet despite the trek to get there and the crazy long lines, my kids are devout Disneyland fans. The difference is storytelling. The same can be said, albeit more subtlety, for many of the world’s top brands.

Next time you need to convey a complex idea — whether it’s a new product concept to your boss or a new product to a consumer audience — try telling a story. Doing so will help you organize your thoughts while at the same time, making it much more likely that your audience will listen — and remember — what you have to say.

Mike Speiser is a Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures. His thoughts on technology, economics and entrepreneurship will appear at this time every week.

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