When media Organisations are looking for someone to comment on an issue related to memory improvement or performance, they will do a keyword search on “memory expert” and usually find their way to this website.
Just last week Sky News needed some input on research that has identified we can memorise just about anything we want.
Unfortunately because of a broadband issue I couldn’t do the Skype call necessary for an interview on TV (so I passed the opportunity on to my good buddy David Thomas who did it instead).
But yesterday I was contacted by BBC Radio Bristol to comment on someone who has committed the Gospel according to St Mark to memory. And as a result I did an interview with Emma Britton on her breakfast show.
So the story is that an actor called Stefan Smart is due to perform a one man show recital of St mark’s Gospel at Bristol cathedral.
The BBC in Bristol got to hear about this, thought it was amazing and so invited me on Emma’s show to talk about it.
You can listen to the interview here:
First of all let me put the feat into some sort of context.
Being able to commit 11,000 words of written text to memory is quite an impressive feat (to those that don’t have to do it).
But it isn’t unique; in fact there are actors around the world doing this sort of thing every day.
So I was somewhat surprised to hear that the BBC had latched on to it as a news item. If it was a recital of the entire Bible from memory, now that would be more newsworthy in my mind.
But again that is not completely unique as religious devotees often memorise the entire text of their sacred scripts. In fact in the Moslem faith there is a name for people who have completely memorised the Quran and that is Hafiz.
We Can All Memorise Long Pieces Of Writing
Let’s get back to the issue of the rote memorisation of written texts.
First of all is it something that anyone can do?
Well the answer to that is assuming you are healthy and psychologically sound then the answer is yes.
For thousands of years civilisations relied on the Oral tradition which according to Wikipedia is:
“a form of human communication where in knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material is received, preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another. The transmission is through speech or song and may include folktales, ballads, chants, prose or verses.”
With the advent of the written word, less reliance was placed on the human memory and today with the internet, why would anyone need to memorise lots of information?
Which is why when someone attempts to commit such a relatively large volume of text to memory today, people get all excited and declare it an amazing feat.
Whilst it does require effort, commitment and discipline to do, if you are able to read these words, then you too could commit 11,000 words to memory.
How Do You Commit It To Memory?
So how would you go about doing it?
Here are the key steps to take to memorise long passages of texts. If you follow this plan you can commit any length of writing to memory.
STEP 1 – Get clear on your outcome
This is the important first step and will give you the necessary clarity to help focus your efforts. Not only should it be about which text you are going to memorise, but it should also be about when and where you are going to demonstrate your recall.
STEP 2 – Know why you are doing it
You need to have a compelling, emotionally driven reason for you to have this goal. If you don’t you will find it easy to falter when things get tough. And believe me with the amount of effort you will have to put in, your patience, endurance and positivity will be challenged.
STEP 3 – Get an overview of the “story” of the piece
Learning a very long piece of writing isn’t merely about memorising each word one after the other until you have gone through all 11,000. Your recall of the piece will be built on a foundation of understanding the main components of the “story” of the piece.
STEP 4 – Break down the text into meaningful stages
There is an old maxim that says “How do you eat an elephant…? One bite at a time”. Your motivation will be easier to maintain if you set milestones along the way to break up the journey you will take.
STEP 5 – Breakdown the meaningful stages into manageable chunks
This is where you will create the bitesized pieces that you will remember one at a time.
Up to this point you will have created a framework understanding of the material you want to commit to memory.
The next part of the plan will be about the actual memorisation of the information.
You now have two choices.
Your Options For Committing To Long Term Memory
The first is the brute force rote repetition… the over and over and over and over and over again recital until you can always recall it.
The second is applying memory techniques such as the journey system (also called memory palace) or the story technique.
Given that I am big into memory improvement techniques, my default would be for the second option because it is a) quicker, b) more effective for longer term recall and c) more interesting and enjoyable to do.
But the second option does require a bit of skill to implement.
It will take a bit of time to develop the skill but if you are going to attempt to commit 11,000 words to memory, it is an investment of time that will pay dividends.
Learn It Back To Front!
Whichever approach you are going to take my recommendation is to start with the last meaningful chunk you identified in the last meaningful stage and apply yourself to that.
Then when you have got that one nailed, then you move on to the one before.
Well every time you memorise a new chunk, as you recall it you can flow straight away into the previous chunk you recalled.
So you become used to continuing to the end of the work rather than having to stop before you add the next chunk if you began at the beginning and worked forward.
Many musicians do this when they are learning new pieces to play – they will start by learning the last 8 bars; then the previous 8 bars; then the 8 bars before that… and so on.
Each time they learn another 8 bars, they are able to play right to the end of the piece.
Another key lesson to understand is the difference between memorising and recalling.
If you apply the Brute Force approach of repetition then you will drift into the challenge of confusing material familiarity with knowing it.
You will see a paragraph you have covered a few times and because you recognise it, its’ familiarity will fool you into thinking you know it.
The Importance Of Practicing Recall
The key measure is can you recall it.
So your focus when committing your text to memory should be learn it once and recall it many times. Each time you recall it you will strengthen that connection in your brain.
That is the connection that you will rely on when you finally come to “perform” or deliver your text verbatim so it makes sense that you exercise and strengthen that.
With such a long piece of written material to inwardly digest and learn you may find yourself forgetting some of the early chunks you have committed to memory.
This is where you need to keep refreshing what you have already learnt by continuously recalling the passages already committed to memory on a frequent basis. Every time you do so the memory is strengthened and will stay “recall-able” for longer.
The skill is being able to plan a refresher before it begins to fade.
For a while it will be like keeping a bunch of plates spinning. Just before the first one starts to falter and fall off the pole, you go over to it and give it a quick spin to sustain it for a while longer.
And in a nutshell, that is how you approach the learning of a long piece of text.
If you have any tips that you think I ought to add here, do let me know in the comments section below.