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)

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