One of the most basic raw skills that any communicator has is the ability to command the material through memorization. A speaker who knows what she is saying without having to refer to any notes comes off as confident, prepared, knowledgeable, and is able to constantly connect with an audience.

Like most all of the component skills that make a good communicator, memorization is largely a product of practice and work. Also like most of the component skills of communicating, there are a few tricks to help get you started.

(Caveat: There is an odd aversion to memorizing when it comes to argumentation (e.g.  don’t memorize your argument. Let the words occur naturally when you deliver your jury argument” and “stilted like a memorized speech”). These commentators throw the baby out with the bathwater by citing the dangers of poor memorization. Memorization is a tool that, if used correctly, is extremely effective. What I propose here is a very modest form of memorization that focuses on ideas rather than words. With sufficient investment, however, memorization permits a speaker to speak with the precision of a playwright which is a potent and time-tested combination.)

There are three types of memory: sensory, short term, and long term. Sensory memory lasts 0.25 – 0.5 second. It’s largely a sensory buffer, capturing the initial perception from the senses.

Short term or “working” memory is information stored in the hippocampus, information that makes it to short term memory lasts up to 30 seconds. Practice can extend the duration of long term memory a bit longer, but if data doesn’t make it to long term memory it’s lost. The is the dangerous middle ground that most information we forget passes through before being tagged for long term storage.

Information that is transferred to long term memory resides in the cerebral cortex and it can last a lifetime. The two methods for transferring information to the long term memory require an effort that is either explicit (e.g. through concentration) or implicit (e.g. through emotion). I interpret both of these means as some type of meaning construction: either you make the information mean something to you or, by its nature, it already pacts a personal impression.

Consciously tagging information for memorization through concentration therefore hinges on your ability to make it mean something. At a deep level, if you work with information long enough meaning emerges. We can’t always wait for nature to take its course.

That’s when we turn to our old friend mnemonics. Mnemonic technique boot-straps our highly developed visual faculties into helping us forge instant meaning.

Most techniques center around some type of visual imaging in which images are used to represent ideas. Multiple ideas are then retained by having the images interrelate. One of the most straightforward application of this is a technique that uses the numbers one through ten and some rhyming words as placeholders for information:

  1. Bun
  2. Shoe
  3. Tree
  4. Door
  5. Hive
  6. Sticks
  7. Heaven
  8. Gate
  9. Line
  10. Hen

By conjuring an image for a piece of information, you associate one of these placeholders with your idea. To recall them, you simply work backwards from the number. If the third issue you want to argue tomorrow is firm resettlement, you would begin with coming up with an image for the idea (e.g. a concrete tent) and associating it with the tag image of the Tree (e.g. a tree falling on and shattering a concrete tent).

I can memorize a page of dialog in about an hour, but I end up using this technique when reviewing material before a hearing. Time is usually short and the stakes are high, so the extra help is comforting. I compose what I want to say, outline it, and then use this technique to help me keep my head up when I’m going through it. Even if things change and I have to skip a point or emphasize another, I can use this to recall the information even out of order using the numbers.

The prospect of memorizing information tends to intimidate most students and attorneys I work with, but they are usually surprised at how easily and effectively techniques like this help them recall information even under the most stressful circumstances.



  1. Mike says:

    Great tips Chris. Association and mnemonics are super powerful tools. As you point out it’s also equally important to know what’s good to try to memorize vs. what you should invest the time and effort to truly learn, so your recall is premised more on understanding than memorization.

    Here’s a fun example of a little memory trick I learned awhile back that illustrates one of your points. To memorize a pre-ordered deck of cards that otherwise appears shuffled, combine the sequence “CHaSeD” (Clubs-Hearts-Spades-Diamonds) with the phrase “Eight kings threaten to save nine fair ladies from one sick knave.” (8-K-3-10-2-7-9-5-Q-4-A-6-J). Good for a laugh or two, and practice for those kind of techniques.

  2. Dearne says:

    Memorization is an excellent technique. I took some extensive training in my final year of law school to prepare for an moot competition, and the one piece of advice from all mentors, barristers and judges was to MEMORIZE the argument. The key point being, memorize the main points of an argument, don’t just rehearse a script. A script is too restrictive, an argument is more flexible.

    Implicit in this is a solid understanding of the entire theory and how each argument links so that if your argument is thrown out of order by a judge, you can rearrange your argument on demand without missing a beat.

    Hey, it helped my team rank 2nd against 251 law schools so safe to say it’s a solid rule :)

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