In the News: Understand to Remember (Updated)

In a recent post on Quora, republished by Inc., Denis Matei explains Elon Musk’s strategy for remembering things. In simple terms:

Don’t try to remember, but try to understand; when you understand, you will remember automatically.

This is an important insight for speakers, relevant to both the speaker’s memory and the audience’s.

In our classes at Stanford, we require our students to speak without notes. At the beginning of the quarter, our students often wonder how this is even possible: how can you speak eloquently without a script? Musk and Matei’s insight sheds some light on this. When you truly understand what you want to say, you can easily speak without a script because your brain naturally creates the words on the fly. On the other hand, if you don’t understand exactly what you want to say, it will be extremely difficult to come up with the words.

This insight is also relevant to the other side of speaking, i.e., the audience’s. If you can get the audience to truly understand what you’re trying to say, they’ll have no problem remembering the key points. But if they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, there’s no chance they’ll take away anything of value.

While it’s important to think about how you’re going to remember what to say, and how you’re going to get the audience to remember what you said, it’s even more important to make sure you understand what you’re trying to say, and that you get the audience to understand it as well. Where there is understanding, memory will follow.


In addition to this major insight, there are a few other tie-ins to The Science of Speaking in Matei’s post.

First, the importance of first principles. In the context of speaking, this means giving your audience enough background information to understand what you’re talking about. In Musk’s words:

Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Second, the effectiveness of analogies. To further improve your understanding, Musk suggests asking “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?” The answers to these questions will generate potential analogies that can help you and your audience understand your topic.


Update (2/12/17): Tech in Asia has turned these ideas into a video, which highlights another connection to The Science of Speaking.

One useful technique for deconstructing these big ideas is to look at contrasting cases. Suppose we want to deconstruct the letter “J.” What makes a “J” a J? We could approach this in two ways. One, look at contrasting cases—a combination of different J fonts. Or two, look at the same cases. That is, study the same “J” over and over again. The first approach is better. Because once we identify the common characteristics of all “J”s, we can create our own versions of the letter. Understanding concepts thoroughly then helps us apply our knowledge.

This sounds a lot like the overarching philosophy of The Science of Speaking, which is to help you understand the fundamentals of effective speaking in order to help you create your own unique style of effective speaking.