Mark Twain’s Fingernails…and Other Potent Mnemonic Devices

By Jerry Weissman

Moonwalking With Einstein, the current bestselling book by Joshua Foer, deals with a subject close to the pounding hearts and minds of every public speaker or presenter: how to remember what to say. Speakers and presenters rely on a number of devices—from low-end three-by-five index cards to expensive high-end teleprompters—to aid their memories, but Mr. Foer offers an even higher end and lower cost technique: visual imagery, or associating a diverse list of subjects with a series of related physical objects.

Mr. Foer’s take on mnemonics is only the latest variation of a method that goes all the way back to Cicero, the first century Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator. In Rome today, the tour guides at the ruins of the Roman Forum tell of how Cicero and his contemporaries spoke for hours on end without any notes.

Paper—which would not be invented until two hundred years later in China—was not available to the Roman orators, and so they used the marble columns of the forum as memory triggers.  Each column represented a single subject and its related ideas. As the orators delivered their speeches, they strode from column to column and subject to subject, using the visual prompts to remind them of a group of related ideas.

Over the years, this technique has morphed into the popular (over 70,000 entries on the Internet) “Roman Room” memory method, in which physical objects inside a room serve the same associative purpose as the open air columns of the ancient Roman Forum.

Mr. Foer’s book drew the interest of Maureen Dowd of the New York Times who delved into the subject and found two other writers and their memory aids:

• Mark Twain, who “once wrote the first letter of topics that he wanted to cover in a lecture on his fingernails.”

• England’s Ed Cooke, the author of Remember, Remember and a Roman Room devotee who recommends, “If you have a list to remember, you put the items in a path throughout a familiar place, like your childhood home.”

Mr. Cooke, who is also the co-founder of Memrise, a blog site about memory, even related the technique directly to presentations. In a 2008 article in London’s Guardian, he wrote:

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 the pound is losing ground on the dollar, you could imagine George Bush beating up Gordon Brown with a wad of dollar bills. If you wish 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 Bush-Brown scenario could go in your bathroom sink, the granny could go in your shower, and the next 18 images could be arranged sequentially in a route around your home.

In my version of Mr. Cooke’s advice, I go back to Cicero and recommend that speakers and presenters cluster the diverse components of their pitches into a few conceptual Roman columns, or main themes, and then to represent those ideas in simple PowerPoint slides designed under the Less Is More principle. The memory prompt then comes from a specific image rather than from an imaginary physical layout.

CFOs, with their usual attention to detail and concern about forward-looking statements, often prepare their presentations as complete text on paper or on slides, and then they read or try to memorize the words. Those approaches force the CFO—and any presenter—to stay connected to the text and disconnected from the audience.

One CFO showed up for his coaching session at my company with his presentation written out in full sentences. I asked him to reduce each sentence to a four-word bullet and to speak from that. He did and it flowed. Then I asked him to reduce each four-word bullet to one word and to speak from that. He did and it flowed. Then I asked him to speak without any text. He did and it flowed. We then put the four-word bullets on the slides and he delivered his pitch directly to the audience and it flowed.

Of course, you can always skip the PowerPoint slides and, like Mark Twain, write the first letter of each of your subjects on your fingernails or, like Sarah Palin, write notes on your palm, or default to those old standby three-by-five index cards. But then, every time you glance down—like a detail-oriented CFO—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 PowerPoint.

About the Author:

Jerry Weissman is a top corporate presentations coach with a client list  including the top brass at Yahoo!, Intel, Intuit, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Netflix, Dolby Labs, EBay and many others. Mr. Weissman founded Power Presentations, Ltd. in 1988 and is the author of four business books: Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story; The Power Presenter: Technique, Style, and Strategy from America’s Top Speaking Coach; In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions and Presentations in Action: 80 Memorable Presentation Lessons from the Masters. For more information on his company and its services, visit www.powerltd.com

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