How to Remember What to Say

A subject close to the pounding hearts and racing minds of every public speaker or presenter is how to remember what to say. To aid their memories, speakers and presenters routinely rely on a number of devices from low-end 3-by-5 index cards to expensive high-end teleprompters.

Joshua Foer, the author of the bestselling Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, offers an even higher-end but lower-cost technique: visual imagery, or associating a disparate list of subjects with a series of physical objects. Mr. Foer’s physical take on mnemonics is only the current variation of a method called “loci,” (from the Latin word for “places”) which, according to a Wall Street Journal article, has roots that go back to our cave-dwelling ancestors because it helped “humans remember which trails through the woods lead back home.”

The loci method was used in ancient Rome by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the first-century philosopher, statesman, and orator. When Cicero and his contemporary senators delivered their lengthy speeches in the Roman Forum, they spoke without notes because paper had yet to be invented. The speakers used the marble columns of the Forum as memory triggers. Each column represented a single subject and its related ideas. Today, the tour guides at the ruins of the Forum describe how the orators delivered their speeches: striding from column to column and subject to subject, using the columns as visual prompts to remind them of a group of related ideas.

Over the years, this technique has morphed into the popular “Roman Room” memory method, in which physical objects in a room serve the same associative purpose as the open air columns of the ancient Roman Forum.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, inspired by Mr. Foer’s book, found a famous writer with an intriguing aid to memory: Mark Twain, who “wrote the first letter of topics that he wanted to cover in a lecture on his fingernails.”

Another writer, Ed Cooke, the author of Remember, Remember: Learn the Stuff You Never Thought You Could,  is also the co-founder of Memrise, a website that offers immersive memory techniques. In an article in London’s The Guardian, Cooke related the technique directly to presentations:

Begin by reducing your talk to, let’s say, 20 bullet-points….

Write out your points in order. Now find an image that captures each point. To remember that 90% of women are at a disadvantage in the workplace, you might imagine a 90-year-old woman carrying a heavy weight. Then arrange your images on a route around a familiar space. So the granny could go in your shower, and the next 18 images could be arranged sequentially in a route around your home.

At Suasive, we follow the Cicero model and recommend that speakers and presenters cluster the disparate components of their pitches into a few conceptual Roman columns, or main themes; and then represent those ideas in simple slides designed under the Less is More principle. The memory prompt then comes from a specific image rather than from an imaginary physical layout.

Financial executives, with their usual attention to detail and concern about forward-looking statements, often prepare their presentations as complete text on their slides, and then they read or try to memorize the words. That approach forces the presenter to stay connected to the text and disconnected from the audience.

One public company’s CFO showed up with his presentation written out in full sentences. We asked him to reduce each sentence to a four-word bullet and to speak from that. He did and he was able to deliver it easily. Then we asked him to reduce each four-word bullet to one word and to speak from that. He did and he was able to deliver it easily. Then we asked him to speak without any text. He did and he was able to deliver it easily. We then put the four single-word bullets on the slides and he was able to deliver his pitch in real time to a real audience without any other notes.

Of course, you can always skip the slides and, like Mark Twain, write the first letter of each of your subjects on your fingernails or, as some presenters do, write notes on your palm. Then again, you can default to those 3-by-5 index cards. But every time you glance down, you will not only disconnect from your audience, you will also appear to be unsure about what to say and diminish your credibility.

Better to go with Cicero’s columns and Less Is More Slides.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.