Leadership Tips to Manage the Primacy and Recency Effect

by Alli Polin on February 12, 2019

The restaurant was beautiful. We walked through the grand room of the main restaurant and were escorted to the intimate dining area designed for romance. Between courses, we were encouraged to step outside on the terrace to enjoy the fresh air and the view. Magical. 

Our first course set the stage. There was melon, thinly sliced and arranged like a Mondrian. We almost didn’t want to eat it. Since my husband and I were there in the pre-smartphone age, we have no photo proof, but it was one of the most exquisite dishes I’ve ever seen.  

Between the atmosphere, waitstaff, and artfully prepared food, it had all the makings for a night we’d never forget. Turns out, they were right, we never forgot it, but for the wrong reasons.  

At the end of the night, we ordered coffee with our dessert. You may not remember, but in the pre-smartphone age, it was also the pre-latte age. When you got coffee at the end of a meal, it was a cup of coffee from a coffeemaker that brewed directly into a pot that stayed on a burner to keep warm.  

The coffee was burnt. Blech.  

We were there nearly 20 years ago and what do I remember? The first course, stepping outside, and the horrible coffee at the end. That’s it. Not one more detail has lingered. It’s the start and end with only some vague recollection of the middle that stuck.  

Want to create a lasting positive impression and spark inspired action?

You need to learn to manage the primacy and recency effects. 

Nobody wants to be compared to a cup of burnt coffee. As a leader or business owner, here’s what you need to know about the primacy and recency effect.  

Primacy Effect:

Simply, people remember what comes first. In the case of my meal, it was the artful melon dish that looked like a masterpiece.  

It’s often said that what you do first sets the tone because it’s true.  

If you lose your cool and then reign yourself in for a strong finish, don’t expect people to forget about where you started –  that’s the primacy effect.  

Leadership Success Tip:

Be intentional when addressing your team or crafting a presentation. Where do you want to start your story? How do you want to pull people in? Think about the primacy effect and craft your start for impact instead of meandering the way to your point.  

Recency Effect:

Hello, burnt coffee. The last thing you say or do? People won’t forget it. It’s a cornerstone of marketing, and it’s key to your leadership success too. Your wrap-up will linger.  

At this restaurant, nobody tasted the coffee before serving it or asked themselves if it had been sitting too long. They assumed that it would hit the mark. It’s assumptions that get in the way of our success.  

Leadership Success Tip:

In your presentations, marketing efforts and team meetings, end with what you want people to remember. Do you end your meeting with an, “Oh yeah. I forgot to mention…” or are you on point and on purpose? If you know that your ending will stick, craft it; don’t wing it.  

Don’t let your key messages get buried under an avalanche of details or a pile of haphazard thoughts.  

“It’s your job to take people on a journey from their first bite to their last sip.”

~ Alli Polin

It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to that restaurant not only because now live on the other side of the world, but also because I’ll never obliterate the memory of the coffee. No matter how spectacular the first course was, the end was unforgettable. 

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

John Bennett February 12, 2019 at 8:02 am

Thanks for introducing me to the “Primacy Effect” and “Recency Effect” Alli. Much to Consider for sure, quite obvious on reflection. I’d heard the suggestions about starting and concluding presentations well – tried to do so; try to do the same in my writing. Opportunity to hook your audience and motivate them to engage / stay involved.

As one person championing Personal Servant Leadership or PSL, I’m routinely suggesting “There’s ALWAYS something that everyone can do to improve ANY situation.” My thought: As much as we strive to acknowledge and address the Primacy and Recency Effects in our efforts, REALISTICALLY, we will ‘screw up’ at times. We MUST be alert to recognize when this happens and find / engage in that effort necessary to overcome our slip up. We need to and, I believe, we can!!! THAT’S Personal Servant Leadership!!!


Alli Polin February 12, 2019 at 8:09 pm

I agree, John. Part of being human is being imperfect. Still, most people can benefit from a well thought out plan. The great news is we are meant to grow and can always reflect and choose to do better.

Your concept of PSL is an important one. While I write about personal leadership, you remind us that what we do is about other’s success. The servant piece is critical.



Kate Nasser February 12, 2019 at 8:12 am

Hi Alli,
I love the way you have extended the classic wisdom of “customers remember the first and last thing you say/do” to leadership and the people you lead.

Be intentional you say … absolutely. When leaders think about the impact of their actions (in advance), they can transform their leadership to one of true service.

Great post .. will share!
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™


Alli Polin February 12, 2019 at 8:39 pm

With respect to learning strategies, customer service, small business owners, sales and leadership where we start and end makes a huge difference. There are obviously other things to keep in mind like repetition and surprise elements to help jolt people to attention mid-way through but primacy and recency are concepts we can’t afford to ignore.

Thanks, Kate!



Terri Klass February 12, 2019 at 8:58 am

Alli, you are such a natural in helping us see the important messages in our presentations and careers. I really hate when someone is presenting, either formally or in an informal meeting and they add a critical point at the very end. I feel like screaming to them- Why didn’t you speak about this essential issue and waited to the end?
As you mention it is so important to bring our audience on a journey with us. Love that! Will share today!


Alli Polin February 12, 2019 at 8:37 pm

Thanks, Terri. Our most important messages can often get lost in the messy middle. People benefit from a coach that can help them create a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end that connects to others and not simply a means to share data. Where we start matters as much as where we end.

Appreciate you!!



LaRae Quy February 12, 2019 at 1:17 pm

This was something I never forgot in my interview and interrogation classes—start strong, end even stronger. In other words, our last impression is often the “lasting impression” because it stays on our mind. Your burnt coffee example is a perfect one—everything else in the middle tends to get lost….GREAT article!


Alli Polin February 12, 2019 at 8:35 pm

That’s fabulous – start strong and end even stronger. I can look back on the people I’ve interviewed over the years and it’s mostly those moments that I remember most -the beginning and the end. (except for the one woman who twirled her hair for our entire interview).

Many thanks!



Gary Gruber February 14, 2019 at 4:24 pm

You are always so spot on! I just had a conversation about primacy and recency with a client who is interviewing for a new job today and tomorrow. We debated and discussed whether she should aim for first or last to be interviewed. The research is interesting but inconclusive in this regard. A strong candidate will overcome either position is my take. Love your stories because they always make me smile.


Alli Polin February 18, 2019 at 7:50 pm

Interesting to think about how this applies to job search. Like you, I’ve interviewed many people over the course of my career. Now I’m looking back to mentally understand how the people I ultimately hired may have fallen into this pattern. However, I strongly agree with you – a great candidate stands out in the process no matter what.



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