How to remember a list of words

April 29, 2019

A long list of words is probably the best place to start when beginning memory training.

While it might appear too simple, practicing this technique is a great exercise for sharpening your memory abilities. Remember that people train in Pilates or Yoga because it makes them strong and flexible, not because they want to be able to a downward dog in a shopping center. Besides, being able to nail lists of words is a useful thing. Think shopping, or language vocabulary.

There are several different techniques used to remember lists. Best to start practicing the right way up some or all of them you will have a prodigious memory.

But I wont mislead you and say it is no effort. You will need to work hard for a while to learn the techniques. Quite apart from knowing that these techniques exist, the initial work needed stops most people from learning these skills, even though we all can. But once you have the tools and practice them you will learn nearly everything far faster than the next person for your whole life.

Sound worth the initial hard work?

As you practice visualisation and storytelling you will find that using mnemonic tools to remember new information becomes easier and automatic. I now can quickly remember new word definitions that used to seem impossible (like the word prosopagnosia!) so keep at it and you will get better and faster.

So how do you actually do it? Its all about being creative.

Here is my most common technique for remembering words – pictures in a story.

It’s a two step process for each word.

Step one – Make living images

Each word in the list gets turned into a picture. A memorable image.

For example, if the first word was ‘bike’ you would visualise a bike. But not just a stock image. The more real you can see this in your head the better. Maybe it is red and shiny and has a ribbon tied to it because it is your birthday. The best way to remember an image is to include as many senses as possible. What would it feel like? Smooth… Smell like? New paint… Taste like? Can you hear your mother yelling not to lick the bike? That ridiculous concept may well fix the bike forever in your memory.

If you can, use images that you already know. Eg your own bike or the dog from your childhood or a movie you loved and watched three times. If you don’t know the item, what does the word make you think of? However ridiculous, use the first thing that comes to mind, because it will also be the first association you make later on.

Step two – Make a story For a list of words, you need to link the items together by making a story. The story serves two purposes – it links all the items so you don’t skip any, and it also gives you the items in order. Knowing lists in order is often an important requirement.

Without linking the items together, it is easy to forget an item on the list, but once they are linked in a story it becomes easy to remember everything. For longer lists we would use ‘memory palaces’, which is a location you know well that you can walk through in your imagination. For a detailed guide read how to make and use Memory Palaces.

This story must not be boring. Go for slapstick comedy rather than Shakespeare (apologies to the Bard). The more outrageous, loud, rude and funny your story is, the more you will remember the list.

An example

So lets get started with an example. Here is a short list of words that are easy to visualise. Over time you can work up to longer lists and more difficult words.

This random list of 10 words is a mix of items to buy and things to do:

  • Bike
  • Pick up pizza
  • Toothbrush
  • Walk the dog
  • Olives
  • Bananas
  • Tim Tams (an Aussie favourite – the world’s most delicious chocolate biscuit)
  • Juice
  • Brush
  • Honey

Step one – Images Select an image for each of these items in the list above. For the bike I will use the red bike that caused so much trouble when you licked it – that metallic taste will be with you forever. Go through the list now and make your own vivid image for every item before going onto step two. Re-read the list and picture each image to make sure you have them all.

Step two – Story In this example we will use my story, but attached to your images. As you read, really picture this story in your mind, like a short video clip. The more detail you can see, feel, smell or taste the more likely you are to recall the story later.

My story for this list

Remember – add your images as you read, and it is meant to be a bit mad.

You have your shiny new bike (maybe we are a kid again), happy as anything you are sitting on it eating delicious pizza when you drop it. Quickly pick up the pizza (1 second rule). It is still hot and juicy so take another steaming bite…wait a minute??!! You bite down on something hard to see that the order is wrong and there is a toothbrush on top of the pizza! Your stomach drops, you feel sick.

You hear an animal panting and whining at your feet land and look down to see your dog, looking expectant. He wants your toothbrush pizza! With a sudden pang of guilt you decide its time to walk the dog. As you start walking you suddenly see with horror that your dog has two heads that are giant olives. Even more ridiculous is that the heads have fancy tropical hats with bananas on top. You decide your dog must be distressed and maybe hungry so you place a large plate of Tim Tams in front of him and the olive heads gobble up the world’s most delicious choccy biscuit – what a waste! Maybe he is thirsty after all that deliciousness, so you pour juice over the top of the dog. As he starts to chow down you take a little pink brush and brush his hair to calm him further. You then deciding his hair needs conditioning so you massage sticky warm honey into it.

Let’s hope this story doesn’t get told to the animal cruelty society : )

Close your eyes and go through it. Do you have all 10 items on the list? Can you say them all aloud, in order?

How many times should you review the list?

I find that going through this story once or twice would give me the list for the day. Walking though it in my imagination three days in a row cements the memory for months, and then once a month for say three months should see me remembering this list for years.

What next?

This has been a simple list, but hopefully you can already see the possibilities. Practice will rapidly improve your learning speed, and you can quickly advance to longer lists and more difficult words. You can practice in this area by consciously visualising images and the story when you read.

As you improve, you can use this technique to remember more detailed information. For example, each item on the list could be a dot point heading for something you are learning, then you can go back and add detail to each heading. This is extremely useful for anyone who wants to increase their vocabulary or learn another language. I discuss text memorisation further in How to remember a speech in a flash.

From this simple example I am sure you can see we can all remember lists, with a bit of imagination.

Just keep those crazy stories to yourself 🙂

Check out my online courses to help your Master Your Memory for work or for school.

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