Harvey Mackay

Train Your Memory to Work For You

A man had gone to a circus as a small boy and decided to return years later. He was sitting in a cheap seat when an elephant came along, reached up into the stands, wrapped his trunk gently about the man and carried him over to the best seat.

The man turned to his neighbor and said, "That elephant remembered the last time I was here years ago. I fed him peanuts." Just then the elephant came back, lifted his trunk, pointed it straight at the man and blew a stream of water in his face. "I forgot I gave them to him still in the bag," the man added.

This is a classic story about memory, or what I call "that thing I forget with." But memory is no laughing matter. It's serious stuff and can help you a great deal in business and in life.

If you read this column on a regular basis, you are familiar with one of my important lessons: "Pale ink is better than the most retentive memory." In other words, write things down.

I have many coaches, including a memory coach. His name is Benjamin Levy. He's been profiled in Fortune magazine and many other media outlets. He's one of the best memory experts around. He's even performed at the White House for President Obama and friends.

I've seen Benjamin meet more than 100 people at a dinner party and be able to say goodbye to each person by name. How does he do it? He says we just need to "wake up our brain," tell it to pay attention and not just let new information slide past. Here are a few of his techniques.

The first is the power of association. For me, if I meet someone named Neil, I immediately think of all the Neils I can recall -- Neil Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Neil Patrick Harris and so on.

In Benjamin's case, he uses the acronym "A NOVEL" to enhance the mental images he makes that help him remember names and other things. "A" stands for active pictures or an action movie. For example, if he met a woman named Fern, he would imagine throwing ferns at her or her throwing a fern. Things are more memorable with action.

"N" is for new. You want a new image, one you haven't seen before. You need something exceptional. "O" is for obscene. "The big dirty secret of memory training is a tremendous percentage of it is having obscene and sexual thoughts in your head," Benjamin said. "The more you make images interesting and memorable, the better you'll remember them."

"V" is for violent. The more stuff you have going on the better -- a broken window, bleeding and so on. "E" is for emotional. "When you make your visual pictures, if people are having emotions ... your images are more memorable," Benjamin said.

Finally "L" is for ludicrous. Try to make your mental picture really ludicrous or funny in some way. Benjamin explains: "So, for instance, if I meet a woman named Karen, for me Karen is always carrots. Will I somehow connect a carrot to the woman named Karen? No, I will visualize a giant carrot connected to Karen, or I will picture hundreds or thousands of carrots connected to her. More ludicrous."

Benjamin adds one other ingredient -- color. Make your images as colorful as you can.

He also uses a lot of metaphors. "Memory work is about transformation, transforming one thing into another, to create the most powerful and memorable mental image possible," Benjamin said.

In memory training, you are constantly associating, linking or connecting one thought with another. This quadruples your retention. As Benjamin says, "You have to give the brain the material the way it wants it."

If you remember one thing from this column, it should be the title of Benjamin's book "Remember Every Name Every Time." I've only scratched the surface of his valuable advice. He shares a variety of practical techniques that have worked for me, such as rhythm and repetition.

We may not all be blessed with Benjamin's gifts, but he's given us a remarkable present: memory techniques that we can all use.

Mackay's Moral: Don't just make memories -- make your memory work for you!

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