My wife gets frustrated with me about my memory all the time. I forget to reorder toothpaste, so we have to scramble around looking for travel tubes in our bathroom cabinet.
Or I forget the details of a conversation we had yesterday, and she’s upset with me for not caring (I get it by the way, I really do).
Luckily I haven’t forgotten to pick up my children from school yet, but even I wouldn’t bet against me doing it one day.
It’s a constant source of tension in my marriage, not least because this doesn’t happen to me at work. And my wife has had enough opportunity to observe me on calls over the last two years, to know that I’m on top of the detail, and don’t like letting things slip. But I don’t always replicate this at home.
I put this partly down to interest.
At work there’s a clear link between action and reward: a good memory can be directly linked to success in my role, which leads to greater intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. It’s hard to motivate myself in the same way about toothpaste, when I know I can pop to the shop if we run out.
Some times it’s also situational. Even if I’m clear-headed, there’s only so much I’m able to hold in mind or bring back to it at short notice.
If I’m making coffee and thinking about the coming weekend and the household chores I need to complete later today, don’t expect me to immediately remember how much we paid for that vase we ordered 3 months ago, when you ask me.
With this in mind, I was invited to speak at an industry event last year and give a 15 minute talk. This obviously presented a challenge for me!
I’m a firm believer that presentations should be visual and that slides filled with text are a complete no-go. So when I accepted the invitation to speak, I knew that’s how I wanted to present.
But here’s the thing: you put words on a slide so you can remember what to say. The traditional wisdom is to write bullet points and use them as prompts for the luscious prose that you want to recount to your audience. But for me, the less you put on the slide, the harder those words are to remember.
And what happens in high pressure situations like this? You’re nervous. Adrenaline courses through your veins. Your flight response kicks in and you look for an exit. You scan the page in front of you, read the bullets quickly, hope they’re self explanatory and move on as quickly as you can.
So, I needed a fool-proof way to remember what I was going to say, and for people to hear it the way I wrote it.
I have some experience in this area, with a few drama productions under my belt in my teens. But my approach at the time was never scientific, it was simply: get script, read script, repeat script, repeat script with movements, pray to God I’d remember it all on the night.
So I worked on this and pulled together some ideas from different places. Here are the exact steps I took to memorise a 15 minute talk. You can use them too:
(points 1-5 broadly lifted from Nancy Duarte’s ‘Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences‘)
- Defined my key message and who I was delivering it to (industry people interested in industry things)
- Identified the key sub points. Put them on post-its to map out the flow of my talk
- Wrote out the speech in full
- Found images relating to the main points
- Split the speech into a long list of sub points
- Once I was sure that my speech was complete, I had the best images and they were in the right order, I designed a memory palace with the equivalent number of points for the speech. I used the rooms in my house and about 4-5 points for each room, for a total of 50 points
- Assigned images to each station in the memory palace, that reminded me of the point I wanted to make in the speech. For example, I wanted to remember something my client had said, and tie this to the sofa in my sitting room. So for this point, I pictured a giant version of my client stood on the end of my sofa waving her arms around, saying the thing I wanted to remember.
- Then rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed
In total, it was probably about 6-8 hours of active effort.
What I learnt
This was fairly straight forward process. Mapping out the key ideas helped me structure the talk and the body of the speech flowed from there. Most of the time (60%?) was spent finding the best pictures (because I’m fussy) and rehearsing.
The process itself did me proud. I went in to that speech full of confidence about what I wanted to say.
Because I knew my ‘script’, I could focus on how I said it. Not mumbling words, but emphasising the right ones, at the right times. There’s a school of thought that says this isn’t the way to go, but my experience from theatre and this talk is the opposite. Know your words well and you’re more likely to ad-lib, add in extra explanations and relax more, giving a better, more assured performance.
I could have rehearsed more, and in front of people. I practiced on my own so got zero feedback. That would have helped my performance, which I knew could have been better. I should have shown my wife. But she’s amazing and I like to impress her, so didn’t want to look silly in front of her.
Finally, this is easily transferrable to other situations, e.g. giving a wedding speech (where you usually wouldn’t speak for 15 minutes) a meeting at work or a sales pitch.
So next time you need to give a talk, give this a try. And if you’d like some help, let me know and I’ll work through it with you.