Using Memory Techniques for Communication that Sticks

The art and science of making something memorable

The popular 2000s series How I Met Your Mother is narrated by the main character, Ted Mosby. It’s Ted’s story, but another character often outshines Ted: his self-proclaimed best friend, Barney Stinson. Definitely the more unforgettable, between the two.

Ted’s wingman in his search for The One, Barney is also the wingman of making Ted’s adventures memorable. Who can forget the night the gang found out about Barney’s transformation backstory, his overnight metamorphosis from a monogamous, humanitarian hippie to a suit-wearing playboy.

On a passionate quest for one-night stands, Barney’s treasured possession is a thick leather-bound playbook of schemes to lure women into his bed, in an apartment that is designed and equipped to repel the women out of the apartment the next morning.

You can’t forget this guy. But beyond that sleazy exterior, he has one compelling trait: he has made it his mission in his social life to concoct moments that are legendary.

That explains his penchant for constantly getting himself and his friends into trouble. His second most-popular catchphrase, after “Legen-wait for it-Dary” is “Challenge Accepted.”

He’s addicted to challenges and dares: he hooked up with a woman while making nothing but seal noises, seduced a woman while wearing 80s overalls, and pierced his own ear. He was always attempting the impossible or absurd, eager to do what’s never been done before. When he realized nobody has ever licked the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, he refused to leave the city until he and Ted became the first people to ever lick the Liberty Bell.

Whatever is crazy, unusual, unexpected, impossible — that’s what Barney calls legendary. And legendary gets remembered.

To make something memorable, make it “legendary”

This begs the question, what qualifies as legendary?

It’s relative of course; what was legendary to Barney and the gang is different from what is legendary to you, or to your audience. What is it that will make a reader or viewer stop and say, okay, now you have my attention.

As available content grows, the amount of content seems to be inversely proportional to its visibility.

It’s just getting harder and harder to get a message seen, understood, appreciated, and much less remembered. It has to — in some ways, at least — be its own form of legendary.

A communicator — whether a writer, designer, or speaker — now has to think not just about how will the communication be seen, and how it can capture attention. A communicator thinks about the entire experience, including how can the material be understood quickly, and remembered. Because for something to be applied or acted on, it has to be remembered in the first place.

The hard truth is that if what you wrote doesn’t get remembered by your intended audience, then (all other factors remaining normal) the most logical conclusion is that you didn’t communicate it well.

If the communicator takes responsibility for audience engagement and retention (along with quality and substance of course), communication will be richer and more effective. It takes a lot more effort and a lot more time, but ends up being well worth it for both the creator and the reader.

And one of the best places to look for retention techniques is memory science.

What can we learn from memory athletes?

The Netflix series Explained has an episode on Memory, featuring memory athletes. (Many are still shocked and amused to find that memory is a competitive sport.)

Even if you are not interested in being a memory athlete, you can learn from them and their techniques for remembering long lists, or random words or phrases.

The Explained episode highlights 3 elements that strongly influence our ability to remember:

  • Emotion
  • Place
  • Story

Emotion

Emotion is a sure-fire way to make something memorable. Notice how most things that go viral are emotional content.

Internet Virologist Emerson Spartz says that the best-performing content pieces are stories that make you go “awww”. Many virologists have even faked stories to generate this awww.

Place

The memory palace is a technique used by memory athletes. It involves using a space you are very familiar with as a map for memory. For example, memorizing a grocery list by positioning the items around your home.

The science behind this is that humans are fantastic at remembering spaces. We rarely forget a space after experiencing it. Search your own memories and you will find that you can remember the layout of your childhood home, even though you don’t remember everything that happened in it.

You can remember your school, your office, a shopping mall, a church building. Even a place you visit for the first time. Someone’s house, for example. You will tend to remember more details about the space and the layout than you thought you could.

Similarly, in any place you go for the first time, once you have been to the restroom, you likely will not have to ask for directions there anymore the next time you visit.

Story

In order to remember something such as a list or a group of cards, memory athletes create a story or action mind involving weird things or characters. The weirder, the more memorable.

And so the hard work is not thinking hard, or repeating the thought until it sticks, as we often try to do. The hard work is creative storytelling. In order to remember the sequence of ” Queen of Hearts, Ace of Diamonds, Two of diamonds,” untrained people like us might just think hard and visualise those 3 cards while repeating the sequence in our minds until we feel like it’s sticking. Memory athletes will instead create an unforgettable scene: Grandma grandma smashing a giant watermelon with Thor’s hammer. And through pre-assigned association, they’ll know exactly what cards are represented: Queen of Hearts, Ace of Diamonds, Two of Diamonds.

The skill that memory athletes develop involves creative storytelling — they need to develop the ability to conjure up these scenes quickly. And that’s how any one of us can learn to memorize a deck of cards in 5 minutes.

Creativity facilitates memory

There is a strong link between the memory muscle and having a wild imagination.

Boring is your enemy. If your mnemonic story is not wild or unusual enough, you will forget it.

I remember an article on Play in Design, in which the author Karl Toomey instructed readers to picture yourself talking to an Otter in your office.

I read that a few months ago. I’ve read hundreds of articles in the past few months and that is one of those that I remember.

Creativity plays a big part in creating the memorable. It’s the fun part actually, channeling your weirdness or the childlike, imaginative side of you.

The more fun you have creating your communication, the more memorable it will be.

Incorporating visual elements

Moonwalking with Einstein is a fascinating book written by journalist Josh Foer, chronicling his year-long experiment: being a first-time memory athlete participating in the annual USA Memory Competition The book is about his experience training for it, and winning the championship.

“Scientists found that people were able to recognize more than 80 percent of what they’d seen,” Josh explains in the book. In countless experiments and studies, people do remember specific images more than words.

Learning from oral traditions

Back when literature was passed on by word of mouth, there was more pressure to memorize what you hear or learn, otherwise information or stories would be lost.

How did people memorize stories, poems, epics?

• Rhyming

• Rhythm

• Easily-to-visualise imagery

“In a culture dependent on memory, it’s critical… that people ‘think memorable thoughts.’ The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized,” Josh Foer says.

“The principles that the oral bards discovered, as they sharpened their stories through telling and retelling, were the same basic mnemonic principles that psychologists rediscovered when they began conducting their first scientific experiments on memory around the turn of the twentieth century: Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don’t; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images; alliteration aids memory. A striped skunk making a slam dunk is a stickier thought than a patterned mustelid engaging in athletic activity.”

As you can also see, creativity increases when you are motivated to ensure memorability.

The value in remembering

Why do we want people to remember what we share? If it’s valuable enough, and if what we are doing is for their own good, we’ll want them to.

It’s not about generating more clicks or views, it’s about sharing something that will make others’ lives better, help them do their work better, and be better humans.

Memory is linked to experience

Josh Foer shares how he learned the value of memory in a travel experience. He visited Shanghai without any prior effort to learn about the place, the people, the language.

“There was so much I didn’t take in, so much I was unable to appreciate, because I didn’t have the basic facts to fasten other facts to. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know, it was that I didn’t have the ability to learn.”

It’s the paradox of “it takes knowledge to gain knowledge.”

In a study shared by Foer, “researchers wrote up a detailed description of a half inning of baseball and gave it to a group of baseball fanatics…and a group of less avid fans to read. Afterward they tested how well their subjects could recall the half inning. The baseball fanatics structured their recollections around important game-related events, like runners advancing and runs scoring. They were able to reconstruct the half inning in sharp detail. One almost got the impression they were reading off an internal scorecard. The less avid fans remembered fewer important facts about the game and were more likely to recount superficial details like the weather. Because they lacked a detailed internal representation of the game, they couldn’t process the information they were taking in. They didn’t know what was important and what was trivial.”

When we care about what information we are feeding our readers and helping them remember, we are helping them experience the world better.

“Memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more.”

The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it. -Josh Foer

It’s a known principle that “we don’t remember isolated facts — we remember things in context”

You have to know what your audience cares about. You can’t just care about how you are coming across. How you are coming across is more dependent on your audience’s state of mind, world views, and situations than on you.

We often find that we communicate best when we do it from the heart, not just performing a task using best practices or guidelines.

And so I find this is a question worth asking in life as well, in our everyday communication and interactions: how do we create a memorable experience for those we interact with? How do we enrich our relationships, and in the words of writer Donald Miller, how do we live a better story?

Memory triggers action

Our communication shapes our life, our relationships, our experience — and others’ experiences — of the world.

When you remember something, it stays in your heart whether you realize it or not.

There’s a passage in the Bible that says “I have hidden your word in my heart; that I might not sin against you.” Your heart defines you. What is in your heart moves you.

Memory creates meaning

It is often said, we are an accumulation of our memories.

“ Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life,” Josh Foer says.

Meaning is found in memory.

2020 is coming to a close and most of us spent our time indoors. What has shaped the way you will remember the year?

Back in 2016, I decided to do a different type of journaling. I drew a postcard each day to represent what i learned. It stands out in my memory as a year of growing and learning, and is one of the years that is most vivid in my memory.

Donald Miller had the privilege of being part of an interesting project: a movie about his life, while he was still alive. He had the rare perspective of seeing his life so far from a storyteller’s lens, and it gave him insights on living a better story.

He then wrote a book about that movie-making experience, around the idea of “living a better story.” Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” is about creating the best memories, being extravagant, living boldly, making choices that result in the better story for your life.

Memory feeds relationships

Going back to the Barney Stinson character introduced at the beginning of this hopefully memorable ramble: Barney was obsessed with making memories. And in one episode, he said: “It’s not legendary if your friends are not there to see it.”

He’s not exactly a role model, but he sure knew how to make great memories and he did them to make memorable moments with his friends. Memories are made with others.

He pursued the legen (and waited for the dary) not just so that he would himself be legendary. All he wanted was to make something memorable, to share with the people he cared about. And after all the crazy things he’s done, that is what I remember him for.

Writer • Communication Designer • Type Explorer | janinaa.com

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