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How to memorize passages

Memorizing passages can be one of the trickiest but most high-pressure intellectual challenges. Even if you think you’ve learned the text word-perfect, it’s often too easy just to get lost when you’re reciting, and suddenly you have no way to pick back up where you left off.

In this article I’ll teach how to memorize a passage of text more easily than you ever thought possible. To begin, let’s talk about the fact that sometimes less is more.

 

First letters: The quickest way to memorize a passage

Whether it’s a short speech, a Bible verse, or a message you have to deliver for a friend, here’s the quickest fix:

Just memorize the first letter of the most important words.

Now, following this tactic, “most important words” may or may not be the most stressed words (or key words).

What really matters is which particular words will help prompt you to remember what follows.

If you’ve ever tried to help a child memorize something, you know how often they need prompting to recite each phrase. It’s like they always forget the first word of each phrase, but all they need is that first word to keep going.

Well, it turns out that if the kid only concentrated on those prompts, those first words, he wouldn’t need that prompting.

Let’s quickly memorize the preamble to the US Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

(For the purposes of this illustration, please ignore the School House Rock song that’s ringing in your head right now.)

If you break it down, this preamble is just one sentence with three parts:

  1. “We the People of the United States…”
  2. a list of six purposes,
  3. “do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

If you can remember (1) and (3), then the challenge is to remember that six-point list, which is the bulk of the preamble.

Here’s the trick. This is that list, re-written with the key words emphasized:

…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…

So the list is “Form, Establish, Insure, Provide, Promote, Secure.”

Turning that into an acronym, we come up with “FEIPPS.”

Hmm. Odd word, but not too hard to remember. (It rhymes with “yipes.”)

Ok, so if you use this tactic, you’ll still have to listen to the passage a few times to make it stick (or read it out loud).

But each time you do, remember FEIPPS and think “Form, Establish, Insure, Provide, Promote, Secure” as you go along.

That way, if you ever get stuck as you recite, you always have a framework in your mind to return to.

Next article: Memorizing Vocabulary.