Posted in Performance

How to remember a speech

I have stood on a stage and told jokes for a little over three years now, and I think my memory has got worse. To start with I would practice my 5 minute set half a dozen times during the day, and emblazoned my set into my brain, to the point where I could see the words on the page as I said them. Whether or not this is conducive to a successful comedy performance is another question.

As time went by I found myself with less time to rehearse, plus this technique is not fool proof. There have been times when despite rehearsals I have managed to miss things, or got sections in the wrong order.

More recently I have written my set list on my hand and spend half the set gazing at the resulting black smudge, which is about as good a look as losing your place entirely.

So I decided I need a better technique. I experimented with a ‘bead and thread’ method, where the string is the thread that runs through your talk and the beads are the key moments you want to remember.

However the problem with this was that it was very difficult to remember what order the beads were in. Then I remembered something about ‘memory palaces.’

What on earth is a memory palace and how will this help me?

I prefer to think of it as a memory walk. I don’t know about you but the only palaces I’ve ever visited weren’t particularly memorable, as I only visited once. However I have vivid memories of places I visited regularly as a child. One of these will do nicely.

How to create a memory walk

This takes focus and a little bit of quiet concentration. If you’re into meditation, I would recommend doing some before you start, to quiet your head down. Memory is a brain-wide process, so the quieter your whole brain can be at the beginning, the better this is likely to go.

Write a simple shopping list, or dig out an existing set list to practice with.

  1. Remember a journey that you have taken a lot. Ideally this will have lots of interesting sights or bits of street furniture on it that you can turn into ‘stations.’ Walk the journey through in your mind a few times, noting any interesting places along the way.
  2. Break the walk down into ‘stations’, in the order that you first envisioned the walk.
  3. Move through the stations, placing an item on your set/shopping list at each one. Make the imagery as vivid as possible. If the item can interact with a place on the walk in a surprising way, so much the better.

If helpful, combine the image with a number so that you will easily be able to recall which item on your list you have got to with each station. You could place two mental images of the item at station number two, for example. Later on, six people holding item number six. Or somebody in a number 7 football shirt holding item number 7. The more imaginative you can be with this, the better.

It may also be useful to create a ‘9 station’ memory walk and a ’12 station’ memory walk, for example, so that you have completely different journeys for different set lengths/shopping lists.

Are there any other techniques that are helpful?


Posted in Productivity

Put that frog in the way

The Brian Tracy book, Eat That Frog, tells us to do the important, biggest, baddest and most unpleasant task of the day first.

Fine, but it really doesn’t appeal at all. The frog is lumpy, warty, unpleasant, still alive, and most importantly there are loads of other things to do which look more fun.

But there are some things that will make it less difficult to eat. I’m going to dispense with the frog analogy now because it’s getting annoying.

The point is, if there’s a horrible task to do, put it in the way. Make it something you have to get around, over or through to get to the fun stuff. Don’t let it hide.

Last week I had to book my daughter into the doctor for some vaccinations. This was boring, and I didn’t want to do it. OK, to be brutally honest, six months ago I had to book my daughter into the doctor for some vaccinations.

Last week, I remembered I still hadn’t done it. Irritating job. Really easy to do. Would have taken me 2 minutes, but I just wasn’t doing it.

In the end, the solution was to get her red book (where her vaccination records are kept) out of the bookshelf, and leave it on my desk. I wouldn’t let myself put it away until I’d booked her in.

It kicked around on my desk for days. In the way. Really annoying me. But I wouldn’t move it until I’d made the phone call. A little later in the week it annoyed me so much I wrote the doctor’s phone number on a post it note and stuck that to the book, so it was even easier to do the job. Still didn’t do it for 48 hours though. 48 hours in which I did all sorts of other stupid unproductive things, like play with my phone, which wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Eventually, this attritional (if that’s a word) technique worked. I did it, it took 2 minutes. So put that frog in your way.

Posted in Phone addiction


I had an app a while back called Breakfree. It featured a little buddha, who would look sad if I used my phone too much. Reader, I killed him. He got sadder and sadder until eventually he was just a sobbing heap on the ground, bemoaning my utter incapability to put the thing down.

“You’ve unlocked your phone over 200 times today” he would sob gently to himself. “Shut up Buddha” I would huff angrily, clicking away to check a cycle of twitter, facebook, instagram, strava, facebook messenger and whatsapp notifications for the upteenth time.

But I read recently that it’s not my fault. The social media companies have to get us to look at them all the time in order to sell advertising. We are not the customers when we use our social media apps. Our attention is being flogged to the highest bidder.

They are selling our eyeballs

That’s why they encourage us to have notifications switched on. Like a rat with a treat lever, we click them continually, just to see what has ‘happened’. Sometimes it’s something genuinely exciting, sometimes it’s someone we follow having liked something we don’t care about. Oh, thanks very much for letting me know.

And when it’s something interesting, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness.

We’re carrying dopamine pumps around with us in our pockets

Anytime we are bored, or frustrated, or bored and frustrated, we zombie back online to see what’s going on.

I have lost track of the number of times I have been trying to get 3yo to put her tights on, got bored, slid onto social media, only to find that the roving toddler is raiding the biscuit barrel, and there’s me, blinking, holding some tights and wondering where the last 20 minutes have gone.

Notifications are more addictive when occasionally interesting than consistently interesting

Psychologists call this a variable-ratio schedule. It is the most addictive type of conditioning, and the hardest to extinguish. That’s why it’s used in sales, marketing, and social media user interface design.

The response to a variable-ratio schedule is a consistently high response rate. We don’t know when the reward will come, so we keep scrolling. If we were on a fixed ratio schedule, we’d get bored of it. We know when the reward is coming, so we’re on go slow until it’s time to get the reward, and might give up all together.

All of this was more powerful than any amount of weeping and eye rolling from my fictional buddhist.

Since then, Breakfree has rebranded as Space – Break phone addiction and is using the very same mind games to help me to crack the habit. Every few days of beating my unlock and time allowances, I get a space ship or some other sticker appear on the screen. Importantly, I don’t know when I’m going to get one. I just know that if I do well, my chances of winning are higher. It’s helping. Check out the Space app here



Posted in Inspiration

Joan Didion on self-respect

I’ve just re-read an essay by the American writer Joan Didion on self-respect.

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

This is a bit of a problem. The world is shouting very loudly that we should make ourselves unique, work on our #branding, tell our story and build our reputation. And indeed this seems to make sense. There are a lot of us about.

But if we Gen Xers and Millenials are intent on building our brands and telling our stories, Didion warns to at least not get trapped into it too early. On the 24 year old singer, Joan Baez:

Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person. And, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her.

It’s heartening to know that it would be disastrous to be too good, too soon, and that it isn’t actually necessary to have a reputation at all.

Posted in Uncategorized


Rachel Wheeley - towel day 2017Rachel Wheeley is a comedian, psychology graduate and podcaster with comedy science podcast Level Up Human.

She was a senior studio director for the BBC, producing live news programmes like Today and comedy shows like The Vote Now Show during the 2015 general election. She left the Beeb in 2016.

deadtalk - twitter

Rachel has a history of science show called Dead Talks which tours science and music festivals with the Science Showoff Talent Factory. She also runs an annual celebration of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called Stand Up For Towel Day.

Sticky imageRachel writes about smart phone addiction after she walked into a lamp post whilst trying to put a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gif on an email and realised she had a problem.


Rachel performs with Ugly Animal Preservation Society and Science Showoff, is an MC and headliner for Bright Club and has performed at Glastonbury, the Royal Institution and the Science Museum.

She is taking a split show to Edinburgh festival in the summer about how she grew up at Eton College. There will be stories about how she was once in a play with Eddie Redmayne and entirely failed to get of with Prince William. More details