In Praise of Memorization

Malcolm Gladwell is a talented public speaker. One of the best, in fact — $80,000 a speech. He looks so natural on-stage. He tells stories effortlessly. He self-interrupts, he adds personal touch. And he always seems to end on-time. Is he naturally gifted?

No. He just works hard and memorizes the whole thing:

I know it may not look like this. But it’s all scripted. I write down every word and then I learn it off by heart. I do that with all my talks and I’ve got lots of them.

A good rule of thumb when evaluating performances: the more natural it looks, the more scripted it probably is.

The key if you memorize something — be it a sales pitch, a VC pitch, or asking a girl out on a date — is that you be able to get back on-script if you're interrupted, or be able to throw out the script altogether if something goes horribly wrong. That's the real skill.

Speaking of memorization, I just received a long email from a memory buff offering tips on learning a foreign language. Excerpts:

… Much of what we call "learning" is actually a rather passive process in which information in the long term memory is digested into a generative syntax.  For language, I believe that the implication is that we should emphasize memorization over studying grammar.  This is not to say that there is no place for studying grammar, only that memorizing words and whole phrases and sentences should be heavily prioritized… A large vocabulary is itself a significant step on the path towards fluency, and the greater the ease with which you can memorize large amounts of information, the quicker you will arrive at fluency. 

The other component of utilizing memory for language acquisition…is committing to memory large amounts of prose and whole conversational exchanges… This study serves two functions.  The first is that by having large amounts of whole grammatical sentences committed to memory, you will begin the natural process of syntax extraction that I described above – much more akin to how children learn language.  But the second, and equally important function, is that by memorizing prose early on, you will have the experience of being able to speak for an extended period of time without hesitation.  This is an incredibly valuable experience, particularly in the early phases of learning a language, when a big part of the frustration and mental let down comes from always having to speak haltingly.  If you have a page of prose or a conversation from a movie memorized you can practice saying them out loud, slowly, and at increasing speed, over and over again both to work on your pronunciation as well as to develop intuition for what it will be like to speak the language at native speeds.

(thanks to Chris Yeh for Gladwell pointer)

10 Responses to In Praise of Memorization

  1. Derekscruggs says:

    Vladmimir Nabokov was known for giving great lectures at Cornell. Turns out he wrote them all out and memorized them. When he was sick he would send his wife in to read them verbatim. He pretty much refused all F2F interviews because he wanted to consider and write his responses.

    Re: language – Pimsleur method is more or less like this. It doesn’t really attempt to “explain” the language, just forces you to listen and repeat. I found it very effective for learning Mandarin.

  2. DaveJ says:

    Seems like it could be a good aid in the toolbox. But see: link to lsa.colorado.edu

  3. Stan James says:

    I can’t agree more on the language front. Memorizing little bits of dialog, with a minimum of grammar, has been the most useful approach in my attempt to learn German. That, and just plain memorizing as many words as possible. Then you can also re-cycle memorized material replacing words here and there with one’s you’ve memorized. Then I see the grammar in hindsight, saying “Oh, so that’s what is going on in that phrase I learned!!”

  4. I think there is incredible value to memorization of speeches.

    I think memorization as a skill is a relatively low level skill (see Blooms taxonomy).

    Certainly, in the educational context, the value of memorization as a skill is declining due to an open culture and the availability of information on the web. Although, foreign languages certainly prove the value of memorization in particular areas. Medicine, accounting, and I imagine law all require memorization as a significant baseline component–however navigating multiple systems and adaptability suggest problem solving to be a multiplier.

    To be fair, your friend the foreign languages expert is unlikely to see the meta-cognition skills at work to provide a fair assessment of the types of thinking involved. And to be fair, I imagine Bloom had a bias against memorization–but I’m not entirely sure.

  5. I liked this bit from Gideon Rachman: “He is not giving a speech or a lecture – he is giving a performance. And like any good actor, he knows that you have to learn your lines.”

    I can respect Malcolm Gladwell’s talent as a public speaker, but some of us take a more anarchic approach than the worthy Toastmasters International.

    I got a chance to exercise my bardic
    oral composition skills when a videographer from CNN approached me for an impromptu interview at a celebrity memorial service.

    It must have been the cowboy hat and the Tony Lama boots.

    I asked him, “What do you want me to talk about?”

    He said, “Whatever comes to mind.”

    So I recited one of those well-worn personal stories you use as space filler in awkward moments of silence with a stranger, but embellished with suggestive imagery of local color.

    My description of breakfast at the local diner couldn’t possibly have had a more mundane subject.

    I told him how my boots kept slipping on the linoleum floor and I’d trip forward like Charlie Chaplin and just barely catch myself (such delicate balance) every time I went to play another Hank Williams song on the jukebox.

    All to the entertainment and mystification of the overalled farmers at the corner table.

    While I was telling this simple, seemingly pointless tale, I tilted my hat just so and squinted my eyes.

    The videographer loved it.

    Over the years, I’ve gathered quite a repertoire of these trippy little dadaist vignettes.

    I think of them as the skeletal frames over which a storyteller sculpts his works, to be bent or twisted whichever way seems best at the moment.

    And as with a jazz musician or an oral epic bard (according to Albert Lord in The Singer of Tales), the focus is on process rather than product: “the moment of composition is the performance.”

    Yet every raconteur’s tale has a locus of action– each a peculiar location on the cognitive map of his life’s story– stowed somewhere in one of the many rooms of his personal memory palace.

    Ah, I’m afraid I’ve gotten lost in there again (because of those glorious tryptamines I’m sure).

    Time to go back to my own little asteroid.;-)

  6. SJA says:

    What do you think about the idea of having a class — or classes — on memorization starting in elementary or middle school?

    Memorization is so critical to the learning process and success in school, and there are numerous techniques for memorizing stuff, including physical processes. Plus, memory can be improved with practice, and perfect practice is the way to go. Recent experiments suggest that improving working memory can even boost IQ scores.

    The class would consist primarily of lessons followed by drills. And it could also cover the different types of memory such as short term, long term, and working memory.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Totally. I was thinking this myself.

  8. Julia says:

    Really appreciate the Gladwell anecdote! Thanks.

  9. Paul Germana says:

    This is a really nice blog Ben. I ended up here because I wanted to tell you how much I like the Egyptian Bust at your Buzz Profile. Have a nice weekend :)

  10. Craig says:

    I like SJA’s idea. A class, or at least giving students a hand-up in memorizing. I was always great at concepts in school but bad at memorizing, and schools have a beat-around-the-bush policy about helping you remember. Interested in whether you think online study tools like memorize.com could let students address this issue themselves.

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