Are you a sales professional that just finished attending a great sales training program? Perhaps your marketing team sponsored an educational webinar that was sensational? How about a riveting guest speaker who spoke on industry trends? Maybe a webcast from your company on a new product that has disruptive technology? Perhaps you just finished reading a great new sales book that can help you.

If you participated in any of these activities you probably walked away excited, exhilarated and with a passion to apply your new found knowledge. Now fast forward a few days, weeks and then a month. What do you remember? What if we gave you $1,000 for each correct answer on 10-question test?  Would you earn the $10,000? The data suggests you would not. This is because long-term learning is rarely achieved by a one-off event.1

What’s Going On?

We all know that the human brain is amazing. It can consume vast amounts of data and information and help us to process complex tasks quickly.  It does have one very large drawback, however, memory retention. We forget what we have learned if we don’t immediately put it into practice. In short, what we learn doesn’t stay in our brain due to the “forgetting curve.” 

Understanding Ebbinghaus” Forgetting Curve

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a famous German experimental psychologist that wrote a paper on Memory. In it he theorized that the human brain would forget information it recently learned if it wasn’t immediately placed into practice. This has been dubbed “The Forgetting Curve.”

“According to Ebbinghaus, the level at which we retain information and therefore the speed at which we forget things depends on a couple of things:

Let’s view this in a graph. The vertical axis is the percent drop-off in retention and the horizontal axis is the number of days it takes to occur.

As you can see memory retention drops off immediately after the training ends and is essentially gone within 60 days without some type of reinforcement.

Tips for Retention!

To mitigate the “forgetting curve,” try the two following techniques:

  1. Repetition: Simply repeat the learning quickly and often. This is the premise underlying facilitator-led learning. You may have noticed that facilitators use workshops, activities and exercises to engage participant in immediately applying the principle being discussed. Often facilitators will also ask for “teach backs” where a participant teaches the content learned to the group.

Ebbinghaus suggests the optimal time for the first repetition is within 24 hours of the training. This should be followed by frequent review to enhance retention. This is often called spaced repetition. The figure below shows the improvement in content retention.

As an example, learners can review their notes taken during the training, read the book provided, apply a tool in a homework assignment or the company CRM, talk to each other about the principles learned or take a post program test. Front Line Sales Managers (FLSM) can immediately begin applying, reinforcing and coaching to the lesson. Senior leadership can create metrics around the learning. What gets measured gets done!

  1. Quality of Memory Representation: Two questions are key to memory retention. Was the content meaningful to the user? Can they connect it to other things that they know? Memory retention can be enhanced by connecting the lesson to real world situations applicable to their milieu (like sales) or by having participants work on applying the training to an upcoming event (sales call).  It even better if the situation is a must win sales opportunity or an account that they must protect.

Another technique is using mnemonics. These are short phrases, acronyms or visual aids that are easy to remember. An example is DISC. The acronym stands for Dominant, Intuitive, Steadiness and Compliant. Each is a different type of behavioral style that each of us possesses or SPIN (conversations) for situation, program, implication and need-payoff.

Parting Thoughts

The Forgetting Curve is a real phenomenon. It can be mitigated when thoughtful, insightful sales and training leaders recognize its presence and then plan and conduct training activities in a manner that facilitates learning AND retention. Examples include training the managers to mentor and coach to the process, integrating the content to your CRM (if applicable) and/or reinforcing the content with continuous online learning or gamification.


  1. Casebourne, E. Spaced Learning: An Approach to Minimize the Forgetting Curve. January 27, 2015 Blog
  2. Savara, S. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting curve-And How To Overcome It. Blog

As always, we welcome your thoughts and input. Let’s start a discussion and elevate the sales profession with a thoughtful and informative discourse.