The ancient “memory palace” technique can help you answer difficult questions.

Share story

“How’s the ‘First Dreadful’ coming along?” I asked a beloved career-coaching client.

He squirmed uncomfortably.

The First Dreadful is one of five networking questions I work on with clients who are trying to make a career transition. The Dreadfuls are the questions you are, well, dreading: the basic questions you know you’re going to stumble over as you try to answer them.

The First Dreadful — “So, tell me about yourself” — is an easy, friendly question.

And a minefield.

“I need to spend more time on it,” my client told me. He pulled out a sheet of paper and started reading aloud his answer to the First Dreadful.

His answer was interesting, personal, funny, informative. A little self-deprecating. A+ on the writing.

He was flunking on executive presence, though.

“Yeah, I know I need to memorize it. I’ll work on it,” he said.

“Let’s do it now,” I suggested. “Let’s memory palace it.”

The memory palace is an ancient technique that uses spatial awareness to remember something. If you think of your major life events, those memories are probably closely linked with your physical location (i.e., you can probably remember exactly where you were on 9/11).

My memory palace technique is a bit of a hack — not quite the elegant mnemonic of the ancient Romans.

“OK, we’re going to link the first sentence of your answer — the one that starts ‘Well, I’ve always been the kind of person who …’ – to that comfortable armchair you’re sitting in,” I explain to my client. “When you start answering the First Dreadful, you start at the armchair.”

“We’re going to link the second sentence – the one that starts, ‘Even as a kid, I was fascinated by …’  – to this bookcase,” I say, standing next to the overflowing pile of books in my office. “As you’re talking, in your mind you’re moving from the armchair to the bookcase.”

“We’ll link this third section – the one that covers your education – to the office door,” I say, swinging my door open dramatically. “This last section – the one that summarizes your work – we’ll link to this plant.” (Satisfyingly, the plant I was gesturing to is a so-called money tree.)

“Let’s go through your answer again, and while you’re talking through each sentence, physically move to the corresponding location in my office,” I suggest.

My client reluctantly read aloud his answer to the First Dreadful on that first traverse around my office. He recited it without looking at his notes on the second traverse. He spoke it to me, with pauses and stumbles, on the third time around.

By the time we were done, he was calmly and confidently telling me an excellent story about who he is and why he’s awesome, as he walked around my office in his mind’s eye.