Brilliant business relationships are built on memory. Remembering someone’s name and the name of their spouse or kids. Remembering their interests and preferences; how they take their coffee, how long they have been a customer or what they do when they’re not working. What’s more, recalling ideas, conversations and the right information at exactly the right time leads to better business decisions.
Effective memories are made, not born. Although someone might think they either have or don’t have a good memory, it can be improved and developed using specific techniques. I asked Ed Cooke, CEO of language learning platform Memrise, that teaches 22 different languages to over 50 million global users, about how memory skills can be developed. This included how he trained American journalist Joshua Foer to win the US Memory Championships, a title that Cooke had won the previous year. Foer went on to write New York Times bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein to capture the experience.
Winning the US Memory Championships
Foer was a complete novice when he met Cooke at the US Memory championships and they decided to work together. “I trained Josh for a year,” explained Cooke. “He followed a demanding training regime interspersed with pep talks and the occasional inspiration session at a memorable location, such as Central Park.”
“I took Foer through the full gamut of memory techniques. They included imagination, to help the brain process information more deeply and store it better; and spaced repetition, repeating information at specific intervals. We covered memory palaces, storing accessible sequences of information in the mind; and the testing effect, the practice of actively recalling information to strengthen memories.”
Cooke trained Foer to “remember sequences of cards by imagining famous people to stand in for cards and arranging them doing memorable things around his home, hence Moonwalking with Einstein.”
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The main reason Joshua enjoyed the experience and became very good very quickly was “his extraordinary intellectual interest in memory”. Cooke explained this “made the experience of improving it rewarding and fun for him.” Foer’s ability to find the fun in his practice led to benefits beyond enjoyment.
Lay the foundations
Cooke believes that “improving your memory muscles boosts other cognitive skills which are valuable for business leaders, such as decision-making and problem-solving.”
He advises to steer away from unhelpful and fixed mindset labels of a good or bad memory and instead think of memory as a skill that can be learned. “People don’t have a bad memory, in the same way that those who compete in Memory Championships don’t necessarily have good memories. Exercising your memory isn’t a case of storing up masses of information or never losing your house keys, memories help us shape how we experience the world.” He uses the example of learning a language, which can “open up new life and career opportunities.”
But imposter syndrome can creep into the memory-based beliefs someone might hold. “Most people underestimate what they can remember, and privately doubt their memory.” Adult humans become stuck in their ways and believe their days of learning and maximising their brain’s capacity are over. But that’s false. Cooke knows “we have an astonishing capacity to learn new information, we just need to place ourselves in the right conditions to do so and practice regularly using these simple techniques.”
Improve your memory
So how can entrepreneurs improve their memory to better their business relationships and commercial success? Cooke suggests they first focus on defining why they want to do it in the first place. “Motivation is always at the heart of learning, so having a strong, emotional reason as to why you wish to learn something is always the strongest foundation.”
Next, it’s “learn little and often.” Memory marathons are not the answer to improving your memory. “The brain digests information best in small morsels, so many small increments always beats a few large sessions…. schedule short sessions that you commit to regularly, even for just five minutes a day.”
Whether it’s remembering the names of people you meet, details about them, important figures, stats or case studies, Cooke advises to “use your imagination” when actively trying to remember them. “We remember interesting things pretty much automatically, so much of the art of memory is transforming forgettable things into more memorable form.” Cooke says this can be done “through mnemonics, by putting them to music, by acting them out, or through any means you can dream up that adds personality and emotion through association.”
Many people reach the end of a day only to forget what they achieved or draw a blank when asked a question that involves information recall. It’s totally normal. “All memories fade” explains Cooke. “The trick is to consciously review the ones you care about to keep them fresh. Think of it like watering the plants in the garden of your mind, strengthening the memories and giving them new life.” One method is to spend ten to fifteen minutes during the evening running through what happened in the day. Give attention to the people you saw, the conversations you had and the actions you completed. Cooke says “this simple act of repetition drives better recall and will help you remember the events of your own life better, as well as the names of candidates you recently interviewed on Zoom!”
Before you meet someone, think hard about the last conversation you had with them. What did you talk about, what did they tell you? See if you can focus on finding the answers and avoid distractions while you’re listening and remembering. When our brains hit stumbling blocks, it’s natural to want to pull your phone out and find some easy dopamine rather than struggle through, but it’s the perseverance that leads to information recall and trains your brain to remember information better.
Cooke advises that you test yourself in this way regularly, so your memory is worked like a muscle. “Memories aren’t information inside the brain, they’re things you’re able to do. To have a memory is to be able to recall it; for this reason, the best way to learn is, paradoxically, to actively test what you’ve learned. This active recall strengthens your neural pathways, directly training the ability to recall for next time.”
Developing a brilliant memory has benefit beyond its simple premise. The more you can remember about a client or colleague the more you have to ask them about. The more you ask, the more you know and the more a conversation can become profound and worthwhile instead of shallow and trivial. The more you remember of your life the more interesting your conversations and the less likely you are to repeat old mistakes. Life and work can be memorable and remarkable over forgettable or superficial.