«Return to Blog List Remember, and Be More Memorable – with Stories


By Shawn Callahan

Andi Bell is a lean, 30-something Londoner. He looks like one of those bicycle couriers who zip past you in Soho.

The thing about Andi is that he can memorize playing cards: lots of them. And in 1998 he needed to remember more cards than any of the other competitors (more than 10 decks), and in order, in 30 minutes. If he succeeded, and also aced nine other similarly gigantic memory tasks, he would become the world memory champion.

How did he do it?

Andi has a method. He starts way before the event by taking a walk through London visiting the city’s sights. Starting at, say, Westminster Abbey he walks past the houses of parliament, crosses the Westminster Bridge and down along the Thames to The London Eye. At each sight he makes a mental note of what each site looks like and where it is along his route. He walks this same route multiple times to ensure it’s well embedded in his mind.

Then Andi gives each card in the pack a colorful picture to represent it. For example, the jack of clubs is a little bear. The two of spades is a pineapple.

Then, in the competition, Andi picks up the deck of cards and looks at the first two. It’s the Jack of Clubs and the Two of Spades. To remember these cards he pictures the first stop on his walk, Westminster Abby and out the front, right in front of the Abby portico, is a little bear sitting on a pineapple (that’s got to hurt).

With each pair of cards he moves to the next sight on his route and creates a new image based on his picture code.

This process creates a kind of story where characters are taking some action at each location. It’s memorable because it creates multiple connections to the neural pathway that contains the memory of the card. If one memory trigger fails we have other ways to get to the memory (location, character, object, action). Our brains are perfectly adapted to this type of work. Trying to remember a single, out of context fact, however, is real tough.

Andi won the world memory championship in 1998 and went on to win it twice more in 2002 and 2003.

How can you use story to help you remember and also to be memorable to others?

Shawn Callahan is the founder of Anecdote, a management consulting firm that uses its expertise in story to inspire enduring change. Its clients include IBM, Shell, KPMG, the Australian Treasury, Fuji Xerox, NAB, Cadbury, Schweppes and Rio Tinto. Shawn has been blogging at www.anecdote.com.au since 2004.

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