Learn the simple trick that will help you memorize anything—and that will make your presentations more memorable to your audience.
Originally published on the SlideGenius blog.
When presenting, it’s never a good idea to read from your slides or note cards. A few quick glances are usually acceptable. And if you read everything word for word, you will seem disengaged from the audience. Even though most presenters know this, the situation still seems unavoidable. What if you experience a mental block and forget an entire section of your presentation? You can’t be expected to memorize an hour-long speech that’s packed with crucial data. Is that even possible? If we were to ask the ancient Greeks and Romans, we would find that the answer is a loud “yes.” How did Cicero remember all of his famous orations? He used a technique called “the memory palace.”
While the term might be new to you, I’m sure you’ve seen this technique portrayed in popular media. The latest incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character, Sherlock Holmes, uses it to solve the most complex mysteries. In BBC’s Sherlock, we watch Holmes sweep through imagined mental spaces to find crucial information that could help his investigation. In real life, the technique was used by the greatest Greek and Roman orators to memorize their speeches. Currently, “memory athletes” use it to memorize a deck of cards or a long list of random names in seconds.
HOW DOES THE “MEMORY PALACE” WORK?
The memory palace technique is formally known as the “method of Loci,” and this name gives us some insight on how the whole thing actually works. Loci is the plural form of the Latin word for location. Our spatial memory is much stronger than our memory for words or ideas, because our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved to be able to navigate their world and remember their surroundings. When associated with spatial relationships, ideas become much more memorable—that’s why tools like Prezi, which allow you to show your ideas within context and lead your audience on a visual journey, can help make your presentation more memorable.
To practice the technique, imagine yourself walking through a specific location. You then associate each item you want to commit to memory to things you come across en route. Here’s an example from Chloe Cornish of The Independent:
So does the memory palace technique really work? I tried revisiting my secondary school, to help memorise the names of the U.S. Presidents in order (there are 44). To get into the car park, I jumped over a washing line (George Washington), where Adam and Eve (John Adams) were playing cricket with Geoffrey Boycott (Thomas Jefferson). Marilyn Manson (James Madison) was in the IT block getting off with Marilyn Monroe (James Monroe) etc. It took me about 40 minutes to come up with the lurid tale, and apart from occasionally getting their first names wrong (so many Jameses and Adams), it worked a treat.
To see this memory palace visualized, take a look at the prezi below:
SO HOW CAN I USE IT FOR MY PRESENTATION?
While creating a memory palace seems pretty straightforward, it actually takes a bit of practice and preparation. To start, create an outline of your presentation. List down all of your talking points and make note of the most prominent words for each one. You will use these words to make visual associations in your imagined scene. Following that, you can start with your mental construction:
1. CHOOSE ANY LOCATION YOU’D LIKE TO USE FOR YOUR MEMORY PALACE.
It’s better if you go with a place you’re completely familiar with, like your childhood home or the walk you take to the office.
2. SET A ROUTE THAT YOU WILL MENTALLY WALK THROUGH.
For example, if you’re using your childhood home as your memory palace, it can be the walk from the front door to your bedroom.
3. WHEN YOU’VE DECIDED ON A ROUTE, IMAGINE WALKING THROUGH IT AND FOCUS ON THE ITEMS AND FEATURES YOU “SEE.”
From the front door, you enter the hallway and climb the stairs to your right. You go up to the landing where a portrait of your grandfather hangs, and so on.
4. REFER BACK TO THE OUTLINE OF YOUR PRESENTATION.
Take the most important words you took note of and make visual associations you can insert to your memory palace. Place these associations in the specific features you’ve identified in your route. Try to place associations that are extraordinary, like in the example by Cornish.
5. FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH YOUR MEMORY PALACE BY WALKING THROUGH IT A COUPLE OF TIMES.
Take note and memorize all the associations you’ve made. After some time, you will find that you’ve memorized your speech completely. Simply revisit your memory palace if you find yourself stumped during the presentation.
After building your memory palace, you won’t have to worry about forgetting what comes next in your presentation. Take a cue from some of the greatest minds in fiction and history, and you can save your note cards for another occasion.
Those one-word-a-day language learning apps may feel convenient, but thematically, they’re all over the place, delivering a chain of unrelated words: envelope, tired, January, receive, onion. Focus on a single theme each week. The mind naturally clusters connected words together, so learning, say, types of weather in one lesson, and parts of the body the next, works in tune with your brain’s natural system for classifying information. However...
It might seem logical to study opposites together: hot/cold, expensive/cheap. It isn't. A learning hiccup called 'cross association' can occur, when you learn two words so closely together you end up mixing them up. If a Spanish student learns 'always' (siempre) and 'never' (nunca) together, they might later draw on one word when they mean to use the other. Instead, study the more common word first (eg: deep) and, once it’s retained, learn its opposite (shallow).
Dissect new words
When encountering a new word, take a look at its structure. Many words consist of prefixes and suffixes, and an understanding of these parts of speech is advantageous. The French word désagréable, for example, contains the negating prefix dés- and the adjective-forming suffix –able. Studying these affixes can help you to understand conjugation and structure, and make educated guesses when encountering new vocabulary.
Read, read, read
Reading helps you revisit learned vocabulary, and see those words in new sentences and contexts. One excellent source of foreign language exposure is through graded readers, which are designed specifically for language learners. Another good source is advertisements or menus, which tend to use short, colloquial text.
One mnemonic learning trick for new vocabulary is the Keyword Method. Drawing on a similar-sounding word in your native language, visualise a picture or scene to go with the new vocabulary. For example, on a trip to Moscow, I remembered the Russian formal hello, “Zdravstvujtye” (Здравствуйте) with the mental image of a stressed vulture. These visualisations are often abstract, ridiculous, and embarrassing to admit, but they work, especially for longer words.
Focus on phrases
Linguist Michael Lewis encourages language learning in lexical chunks, rather than on a word-by-word basis. A good portion of daily communication involves predictable common phrases: “turn left,” “just a minute,” “nice to meet you.” When studying a new language, memorise these phrases and you'll have a ready arsenal of dialogue, without the stress of having to build and conjugate your sentences from scratch.
In a vocabulary class, yesterday’s vocabulary is more important than today’s. The goal is to transfer the short-term knowledge of new vocabulary into your long-term memory. Review is essential – in the first few days or weeks after learning new vocabulary, recycle those words and you'll entrench them in your memory. A good language textbook or online program will be organised in a way that reviews and applies learned vocabulary in later lessons.
Anne Merritt is an EFL lecturer currently based in South Korea. More by this author:
Learning a foreign language: five most common mistakes
Foreign languages: the 10 easiest to learn
How to avoid embarrassing foreign language faux pas