If you are presenting a reader with two ideas in writing, A and then B, and the one you want people to choose is A, should you position it first or second?
“Second!” you say, because of the often-heard notion that people remember the last thing they read. But that is true only under limited circumstances. Psychologists have found that most of the time, the information that receives closest attention is first. So, when you are deciding where to position your preferred option, consider how interested the audience is in the content of your message.
How interested readers process information
Readers tend to absorb information in one of two ways, according to Richard Petty, a social psychologist at Ohio State. Those he calls motivated readers care are engaged quickly, because they see that the message is relevant to them. They understand the topic, they might have experience with the issue, or they might be affected by the outcome. They will analyze it, consider it in the context of their own knowledge, and form an opinion based on that information. Research shows they will pay less attention to information that appears later, which, in this case, would be idea B.
If the communication is a proposal to senior people who are familiar with the issue, positioning it first would increase the chances of acceptance.
How a marginally attentive audience reads the information
Unmotivated readers are people who either do not perceive the message as relevant to them or who are apathetic in general: They generally have a “don’t care” attitude. These readers tend not to pay close attention at the start. They scan the first few paragraphs until a detail, an analogy, or a compelling fact piques their curiosity and pulls them in, prompting them to read the rest of the message more closely. In that case, these unmotivated readers are more likely to recall the last information they consumed.
Where to position your most important topic or the point you are arguing sometimes will depend on whether the message was written or oral. If the two positions were presented orally, such as in a conversation or in a political speech, the audience might be more likely to recall the second argument, depending on whether there is a delay in time between the moment the audience hears it and the time she makes her decision.
Deciding where to place strong information has always been challenging, but today’s shrinking attention spans make it even easier to justify putting a strong position, with solid evidence, first.