Every single one of us has a limitless memory capacity. Storage isn't the issue, as our brains can hold everything and then some. It’s recall—accessing the information in our memories—that’s the sticking point.
Not only is recall difficult, but it also affects how our peers perceive us. Think about it: The person who remembers details, dates, names, specifications—we think of that person as smart, organized and someone we want to do business with. The person who constantly apologizes for never remembering a name or recalls information incorrectly—we think of that person as less smart, or at least not as desirable a work partner as the person with the great memory. Memory matters in business. A lot.
If your memory could use a boost, you're in luck. With some effort, you can improve it. Try these seven ways to enhance your total recall:
1. Convert words to pictures. This essential tip works for two reasons: First, we naturally remember visual cues better than words, and second, the more senses you involve in learning or storing something, the better you will be at recalling it. Say you need to remember to submit a proposal to a client at 10 p.m. for a meeting the next day. You commit your task to memory by visualizing your proposal—a stack of papers—on top of an alarm clock that reads "10 p.m." The trick here is to make the picture vivid. So visualize an alarm clock, time flashing, alarm blaring, and focus on it. 10 p.m. ... proposal ... got it.
2. Use memory spots. Think of physical places that you regularly occupy—your car, your desk, your recliner—and mentally put the picture from tip one (your proposal on the alarm clock) in one of those spots. I drive a lot, so one of my memory spots is the hood of my car. This spot works for me because I can take a moment after an appointment and enter the commitment into my calendar or jot down a note based on the reminder sitting right in front of me. In my mind, I’d put my proposal on the alarm clock on the hood of my car. Committing something to memory and mentally placing it where you’ll see it is the equivalent of putting a note on the front door so you’ll see it when you leave for work in the morning. As you continue to use this technique, you’ll become accustomed to checking with yourself: Should there be a reminder on the hood of my car?
3. Stacking. If you just use rote memorization, you’ll probably top out at remembering roughly three items. That’s fine if your dinner only ever contains three ingredients or your to-do list only ever has three tasks on it. But most of us live more complicated lives than that. You’ve created your mental picture of the proposal on an alarm clock, and you’ve put it on the hood of your car where you’ll “see” it. But what if you also need to remember that you’ve promised three pricing options for the proposal, you’ve offered to include the bios for some experts that your client may need, and you’ve also decided that you need to invite this client to your annual Labor Day cookout?
Here’s how you do it: Stack your pictures. Now remember that these pictures need to be as vivid as possible so they’ll stick. So you have a blaring alarm clock with a proposal on top. You add a set of scales with three balances (three prices to consider) and two people sitting on the scales (your expert bios), and then imagine those people eating hot dogs (cookout). That’s everything you need to remember, all stacked up and sitting on the hood of your car.
4. Use rhymes. If I were to ask you where the rain in Spain stays, you’d have an answer right away. Mainly in the plain, right? The fact is, the mountains of Spain see more rain than the plains do, but everyone who’s seen My Fair Lady will answer this question the same way because the rhyme in the movie's song was so memorable. Rhymes are powerful memory devices. Create a rhyme, and you’ll dramatically improve your recall.
5. Use mnemonic devices. Acronyms like HOMES and sentences like Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally help you remember things like the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior) and the mathematical order of operations (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction).
6. Work specifically on names. If you remember a new acquaintance’s name, you demonstrate that that he or she is important to you. Conversely, if you never remember names, you may appear careless. It’s worth spending some time to create a specific framework to help you remember names. There are 30 female first names and 30 male first names that account for the vast majority of the names you’ll encounter in the U.S. So make a list and come up with a picture association for each of these names. Something like Mike = motorbike or Helen (of Troy) = ships or Richard (the Lionhearted) = a crown. When you meet a Richard for the first time, you picture him with a crown on his head. Or when you meet a Helen, you picture her on a ship laying siege to Troy. Get the idea?
7. Use pictorial storage to remember lists of items. First, create an anchor list of rhymes associated with numbers. I use the following list and suggest you do, too:
Six: Pile of sticks
You’ll work with this list enough that you’ll eventually memorize it, but while you’re practicing this technique, keep the list handy as a reference. With this list and a little practice, you’ll be able to recall dozens of items in order, simply by creating a word picture associated with each of the rhyming number pictures. Here’s an example: You need to remember to mail a letter, pick up your suit at the dry cleaners, call your father for his birthday, and get milk and 10 other items at the grocery store—all on your way home from work. Here’s how you remember it all:
One: Gun (gun firing a letter toward its destination)
Two: Shoe (your dress shoe that matches the suit you need for your meeting)
Three : Tree (the tree in your dad’s backyard)
Four: Floor (milk spilled on the floor in front of the refrigerator)
This chain can go on forever. Wonder what you do when you get to 11? Stack the picture onto your number-one picture: Your gun is now firing a letter that’s covered in grape jelly to remind you of the next item on your grocery list. You keep stacking these vivid pictures, and you’ll have a compact, detailed list in order, every time.
Can putting these tips to work magically transform you into Memory Man? Of course not, but you can spectacularly improve your memory—and the ways in which you are perceived by peers, clients and staff. Make the effort, and you’ll reap the benefits.
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Photo: Getty Images