How to Remember a Speech – Think Like a Drummer

I’ve written before about memory walks. But the problem is they can disconnect you slightly from the audience.

In your head you’re in a different place and I’m not sure on their own they’re enough.

Then I listened to an excellent podcast episode by Tim Ferriss. Tim was talking to one of the greatest drummers on the planet, Dave Elitch. If you haven’t heard of Dave, this video of him on tour with the Mars Volta is worth checking out if you don’t have a gig nearby!

Dave is one of those drummers that artists like Miley Cyrus call when their drummer suddenly breaks their arm or similar. Dave goes in for a rehearsal with a band, picks up their entire back catalogue in three weeks, and then goes on tour with them. Bearing in mind the drummer can make or break a gig all together, we need to learn from this man.

How does he do it?

I’ll play the song; I don’t know, like five or 10 times with my notes. And then I start, “Okay, I think I got it now.” Then I’ll put my notes away and just play. No, sorry. Then I’ll play with just the notes, no music. Then I’ll play –

Tim Ferriss: As you were saying. So you’re accompanying the music first with your notes.

Dave Elitch: Yes. And then when I get comfortable the next step –

Tim Ferriss: Turn off the music.

Dave Elitch: – and just play with the notes. And then the next step is music, no notes. And then the final step is just a click track, nothing else. So just a click track.

Tim Ferriss: Click track metronome.

Dave Elitch: Yeah. So I hear nothing, and I have to know it so well that I can get through the whole song in my head, hearing everything. That’s an insane amount of work. But the deal is when you get on stage, and there are 30,000 people screaming, and like with Miley (Cyrus), people throwing bras and underwear at me.

Tim Ferriss: Better than batteries and tomatoes, I guess. Or beer bottles.

Dave Elitch: Like at that moment, you have to know everything so well that that’s not going to faze you. It takes a long time. I’m in there for 10 or 12 hours at the beginning.

We’ve all been at one of those gigs where people are throwing batteries at us, right? No, me neither.

And then Ferriss goes explains how he goes about trying to learn a keynote:

Tim Ferriss: I want to note something for folks, and I’m so glad we got into this because that particular way that you laid out your progression for practicing a song is nearly identical to how a lot of the best public speakers also prepare their keynotes. They will take a keynote – and I learned to do this as well, but I was borrowing from other people – and instead of – let’s just say for the sake of simplicity, a 60-minute keynote – rather than trying to give the 60-minute keynote from start to finish, they’ll break it into four pieces.

Or what they’ll do – and this is something I started to model – is because the beginning and the ending is so important, actually breaking out the first five minutes and the last five minutes. Let’s make it simple. If it’s a 40-minute talk – this will make the math a little easier – first five minutes, then you have three 10-minute sections and then the last five minutes. And to practice each one of those individually, as opposed to in sequence. Initially, not paying attention to time, although having some rough idea of the total length. And then recording, listening to it, making these post-game analysis edits necessary.

So I’m going to try this. I have a 30 minute set to do on Wednesday night (come along if you’re around!) I’ve written 25 minutes worth of jokes, so I’m going to try to learn the first five, the last five, and then two chunks of about 7 in the middle.

The whole interview with Dave Elitch is here.

Do you have to learn stuff by heart? How do you go about it?

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?