There is one fear around public speaking that worries people more than all others: going blank on stage. Standing in front of an audience with no memory of what you're supposed to say is anxiety-inducing for even seasoned pros. The way to avoid this is to use a memory-recollection technique called the memory palace.
In basic terms, it's a form of memory enhancement that uses visualization to organise and recall information. It's by far the most useful tool I learned in my time studying comedians for my book, Do You Talk Funny?
I was introduced to the power of the memory palace by San Francisco based comedian Richard Sarvate. By night a very funny man, by day a more formal computer programmer at Yahoo! He applies the same logic and rigor from his corporate office to his nightly adventures in comedy. When creating an image to put in your memory palace, he says, "It is useful to have the image interact with the environment. For my sushi joke I picture a sushi chef. If I put him in the elevator in the lobby of my apartment, I picture him mashing the buttons on the elevator in frustration. Now that he is interacting with the environment, it's a lot easier to visualize and recall. It's useful to make the image bizarre in order to make it more memorable. For my Mexican Indian joke I picture Krishna wearing a sombrero. A ridiculous image, which is almost tougher to forget."
The techniques Richard cites were also central to Joshua Foer's bestselling book Moonwalking with Einstein and date back to sometime between 86 and 82 b.c. with the first Latin rhetoric textbook, Rhetorica ad Herennium, often referred to as the bible of mental athletes. The ad Herennium, "advises readers at length about creating images for one's own memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better." The memory palace technique has kept many an anxious performer from forgetting their lines and the same principles will work for you in your next business presentation.
Here are 6 steps to craft your own memory palace and avoid going blank in your next presentation:
1. Decide on a blueprint for your palace
A memory palace can be a purely imagined place, but it's often easier to base it upon a place that exists in the real world, one that you are familiar with. The house you grew up in, the apartment you're currently living in, and your office are all great examples.
2. Define a route through this palace
It's essential that you follow a specific route in a specific order through your palace so you'll log items in the order you want to speak about them.
3. Identify specific storage locations in your palace and along your route
This will give you defined places to store your information.
4. Memorize your memory palace
The best way to do this is by drawing out a basic blueprint so you can visualize it brought to life on paper, then create a memory in your mind.
5. Place things to be remembered in your palace
For example, if part of your presentation consists of talking about exports to Ireland or a particular Irish guy you met (like me), do your best to create this person in as much detail as you can. This essentially burns an image in your mind that makes it easy to recall that element. The more humorous and absurd the better.
6. Explore your palace and see everything you have created
Visualize everything you have created and commit it to memory. Take a few moments to do this. These essentially become your practice run-throughs, in which you walk through your palace and, along the way, encounter all the different memory points or key item topics for your presentation that you want to remember. If you forget your words at any moment stop and picture where you are in your memory palace. It's much easier to recall a location and an accompanying story than a bullet point.
For me, my memory palace is the lower floor of my house, with a path that takes in each room: I enter from the main door (the start of my talk), past key topic areas in each room, on the sofas, on the chairs, at the table and then exit through the door (the conclusion of my talk). I create a story for each item I encounter along the way and picture then interacting with each other. I draw this out and keep it on me while presenting, not to show it to the audience, but to put my mind at ease in knowing it's there if I need it.
Using this technique Richard has never gone blank on stage. Nor have I, or anyone I've met that's used it. It's also the same technique rapid language learner's use to get fluent fast and the reason my mother knows my phone number off by heart (not always a good thing). It will work for you too.
We have known to use humor to be more memorable since before the Roman Empire, yet somewhere along the way, we forgot how. I guess someone in the Dark Ages forgot to picture Julius Caesar in his funny sheet toga.