I once heard a statistic that humans fear public speaking above death. In his standup routine, Jerry Seinfeld once said, “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” While I can’t relate to that extreme level of fear, I usually have a mental handbag of hypotheticals that nag me in the days and hours before having to speak in public. What if my heel catches and I fall on stage? What if my voice quivers and my hands visibly shake? What if I say something stupid?
It was exactly two weeks before I was scheduled to deliver a presentation at the annual gala for the Professional Association for Consumer Engagement (PACE). Smack dab in the middle of Times Square (well 30 floors above it in the Thomson Reuters Building) I would show how corporations can use the social science technique of ethnography to meet sales and customer service goals. A phalanx of SBR strategists had worked in the weeks prior to design an audience-centered storyline and visual presentation. Now the work was on me to deliver it.
There was one, big problem though. My memory is abysmal. And it’s not just memorizing business presentations that are impaired; I regularly forget names, movies, even family members that I rarely see! I knew this subject matter very well, but memorizing it would force me to stay on-point instead of meandering and potentially boring the audience.
In my search for a pragmatic approach to help transform an unreliable memory into something more dependable I landed on Joshua Foer’s game-changing Ted Talk. Foer showed how he went from science journalist covering the U.S. Memory Championship to eventually winning the competition by mastering the memory techniques he studied.
I picked up Foer’s book, Moonwalking With Einstein, which revealed these techniques, specifically, Simonides’ method of loci (sometimes called the “memory palace” method). The science is surprisingly simple: our brains are better wired to store pictures than words and numbers. Using the memory palace, the person associates concepts with spatial images, and later recalls each item by mentally walking through their memory space.
Through Moonwalking with Einstein I learned that our brains are particularly well equipped to stockpile the ludicrous, so the raunchier and more absurd the mental pictures, the better. I began by converting each slide into preposterous pictures associated with a physical place in my house, starting sequentially with my front door, then moving right into my living room, further on into my kitchen, and so on.
For example, one of the initial topic points I planned to cover was Procter & Gamble’s design of the Swiffer, based upon using the ethnographic technique to observe people cleaning their kitchen floors. In my memory palace, I pictured a hunky man wearing just an apron as he showed a group of women a Swiffer prototype while they sat around my kitchen table. It was just absurd enough to remain in my memory today.
With a 45-minute presentation you might ask how easy it could be to place the necessary pictures into outrageous visuals? Answer: quite easy. In fact, when my mind desperately wanted to revert to rote memorization that it had tried (and failed) to use in the past, I ended up elongating my practice time significantly.
As this was the first time I had employed the technique, I was fairly nervous on the day of the presentation. But all went well. In fact, my mind effortlessly seemed to move from slide to slide, carefully plucking visuals from my cerebral chambers and allowing me to deliver the information with ease. If I ever meet Foer I will hug and kiss him the way you would someone who you are indebted to forever.