Communication skills study: F W de Klerk & the Law of Recency

John French


Whatever happens last when you communicate is what they are left with. This is called the Law of Recency.

Credit: Unsplash / @alx_andru

This week’s communication skills lesson is all about the Law or Recency. This is a communication principle that every professional should understand and leverage. Whether you are in customer service or leading an organisation, the great Law of Recency affects you daily in every one of your relationships, both professionally, as well as personally.

What is the Law of Recency?

The Law of Recency is not just a communication principle. It is a great natural law that runs through science, nature and every relationship. Put simply, the law states that whatever happens last in any given situation makes the greatest impact. Because something has happened last, it is the easiest thing for people to recall afterwards.

  • It is the last thing you say.
  • It is the last thing you make people feel.
  • It is what they end up holding at the end.

When it comes to memory recall, it is far easier for people to remember your last impression than most other things that happened before it.

The Laws of Primacy and Recency

We all know about the power of first impressions, but no one ever seems to talk about the power of your last impression.

Your first impression sets up the dynamic for the whole communication engagement, but it is your last impression that dictates your ability to influence or make an impact. Even if things have not gone terribly well, your last impression may literally ‘save the day’.

Historical studies and research

The psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the serial position effect during his various memory experiments. The experiments discovered that a person’s ability to accurately recall items from a list correlates to the specific location of that item on the list.

Ebbinghaus found out that items found at the end of the list (that are heard and learned most recently) are usually recalled best – the Recency effect.

Interestingly enough, the first items on the list are also recalled better than those items found in the middle of the list. This is called the Primacy effect.

TED Talks and E.C.M.’s

If you read any of the TED Talk books, you will read about what they call E.C.M.’s (Emotionally Charged Moments). Experienced presentation skills coaches know that your biggest impact points are when you start your presentation, and when you end it.

We are talking here about your first and last impressions – the Law of Primacy and the Law of Recency. At the beginning of a presentation you need to ‘hook’ your audience. You need to get their attention.

At the end of your presentation, you have a golden opportunity to influence. That is usually the sole purpose of speaking and presenting. You are really there to influence your audience in some way. That is why your company is paying for the event. That is why you have been employed or given the responsibility to present.

Now that you know about the power and influence of your last impression, I teach clients that you need to use this special moment to ‘pull the trigger’ and influence. Your whole presentation has been about building enough credibility and evidence to ask for what you need. This strategic point in your presentation is called your ‘Call to Action’.

Customer service and telephone skills

The Law of Recency also has a huge impact on customer service and your telephone skills.

In all our customer service programmes we emphasise the absolute importance for your first and last impressions, both on the telephone and face to face. The laws of Primacy and Recency dictate that a client will judge you mostly on the impact you made at these two critical moments.

On the telephone, it is essential to perfect your telephonic greeting, as well as make sure you have a positive and appropriate close to each call.

F W De Klerk as a recent case study

Being South Africa’s last Apartheid State President was never going to be an easy ride into the history books. After a long career in politics, F W De Klerk found himself in the controversial position as South Africa’s last Apartheid State President.

This blog is not about South African politics (as a communication strategist, I know how dangerous that territory is). I am merely using De Klerk as an excellent recent example of the Law of Recency at work.

On the upside, De Klerk could (at a stretch) be acknowledged as being the Apartheid President that worked towards ending the hideously unjust system of Apartheid. His legacy shares even received a major boost when he was rewarded with the ultimate accolade of sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Archbishop Desmond Tutu back in 1993. What an exceptionally high note that was. What a perfect way to end a somewhat dubious career. It seemed to be the ultimate legacy prize.

De Klerk retired from active politics in 1997, and enjoyed a couple of peaceful decades, where he was largely forgotten. Then last month, FW opened his 84-year-old mouth and delivered a clanger to end all clangers. He basically put both political feet in his mouth by stating said that Apartheid wasn’t a crime against humanity. What?!#? This instantly made FW the most reviled man in South Africa, upsetting left, right as well as the moderate centre of the political spectrum.

This horrendous statement added to the chaos that was SONA 2020. The subsequent apology will not suffice.

There is no way that this seasoned politician could not have known that the UN General Assembly had declared Apartheid a crime against humanity back in 1966. Subsequent decades have also proved beyond a reasonable doubt just how damaging Apartheid has been to the people and future of South Africa.

The aim of this blog is to simply point out that this political mega-gaffe in this final act of F W’s political life will completely stain his career, life and legacy. The great Law of Recency is making itself felt again.

Law of Recency tips for you

To help ensure that you make positive last impressions, try the following to leverage the magical power of the Law of Recency:

  1. Ask yourself what kind of final impression you want to create to open the door to further engagement and opportunities.
  2. Pay attention to your non-verbal communication: your posture, body language, hand gestures, facial expressions and eye contact in those final moments.
  3. End your telephone calls, meetings and presentations by paying attention to your voice: your voice projection, clarity of speech and friendly tone of voice.

Feel free to contact John French at Communication Guru for more information on our various communication skills courses –

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