Story Method

Using the Story Method Mnemonic

The story method (sometimes called the sentence mnemonic) is the most easily learned list-mnemonic strategy. As its name suggests, the story method involves linking words to be learned in a story.

While this is most obviously useful for learning actual list, it can also be used for remembering the main points of a passage. In such a case, you need to reduce each point to a single word, which hopefully has the power to recall the whole point.

Examples

Remembering word lists

Let’s look at an example. First, an easy one — a list:

  • Vegetable Instrument College Carrot Nail Fence Basin Merchant Scale Goat

This can be transformed into:

A VEGETABLE can be a useful INSTRUMENT for a COLLEGE student. A CARROT can be a NAIL for your FENCE or BASIN. But a MERCHANT would SCALE that fence and feed the carrot to a GOAT.

But let’s face it, this is not a very probable list of words for you to memorize. The example is taken (with some modification) from a laboratory experiment, and the few tests of the story mnemonic that there have been have tended to involve such lists of unrelated words. But learning lists of unrelated words is not something we need to do very often. And generally, if we do have lists of words to learn — say, the names of the elements in the periodic table — they’re going to be too technical to lend themselves readily to creating a story.

Even if the words themselves are not particularly technical, the nature of them is not likely to lend itself to a narrative. Let me show you what I mean. Consider the taxonomy of living things:

  • Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species

Here’s an attempt at a story:

In the KINGDOM, PHYLUM is a matter of CLASS, but ORDER is a matter for FAMILY, and GENIUS lies in SPECIES.

The trouble with this is not the re-coding of genus to genius; the trouble is, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a sentence, but not a story — there’s no narrative. Humans think in stories.

We find them easy to remember because they fit in with how we think. It follows then that the more effective story mnemonics will actually tell a story. To do that, we’re going to have to transform our technical words into more common words.

King Philip went to the classroom to order the family genius to specifically name the individual who had stolen the taxi.

The last part of this is of course unnecessary — you could finish it after individual if you wished. But an important thing to remember is that it’s not about brevity.

It’s all about memorability. And memorability is not as much affected by amount to remember, as it is by the details of what is being remembered. So meaningfulness is really important. Adding that little detail about stealing the taxi adds meaningfulness (and also underlines what this mnemonic is about: taxonomy).

Here’s a longer example. Remember our hard-to-remember cranial nerves Opens in new window? This story was mentioned in a 1973 Psychology Today article by the eminent psychologist G. H. Bower:

At the oil factory the optician looked for the occupant of the truck. He was searching because three gems had been abducted by a man who was hiding his face and ears. A glossy photograph had been taken of him, but it was too vague to use. He appeared to be spineless and hypocritical.

Here it is again with the nerves shown for comparison:

At the oil factory (olfactory) the optician (optic) looked for the occupant (oculomotor) of the truck (trochlear). He was searching because three gems (trigeminal) had been abducted (abducens) by a man who was hiding his face (facial) and ears (auditory). A glossy photograph (glossopharyngeal) had been taken of him, but it was too vague (vagus) to use. He appeared to be spineless (spinal accessory) and hypocritical (hypoglossal).

Notice how, with these technical words, they have been transformed into more familiar words &mash; this is what I meant by saying the keyword method is a vital part of all these list-mnemonics.

Remembering Text

Let’s try something completely different. Here’s a selection of points from articles in my local newspaper that I want to remember to tell my partner:

  1. council promises support for replacement of the fire-damaged local surf lifesaving clubhouse;
  2. council calls for comments about proposal to open a pedestrian mall to buses;
  3. daylight saving marks the start of beach restrictions for dogs;
  4. Playcentre Federation calls for government support for more parent education classes;
  5. robot exhibition coming soon; organizers of eDay (for recycling computer equipment) given award;
  6. secondary schools choir to sing at cathedral.

The first thing to do is choose a keyword / phrase to represent each item; burnt house, bus, dog, parent class, robot, computers, cathedral.

Now I need to construct a story. A big advantage I have in this case is that the order is not important, which helps a lot. So I can say:

The robot walked out of the burnt house, carrying a broken computer. Barking, the dog herded him onto a bus, which took them both the cathedral, where a group of parents were having a class on computer trauma.

Once again, there are elaborative details which serve no purpose but to make the story more memorable; that the dog is barking; that the class is about computer trauma. Where possible, you should always try and select concrete keywords — ones that are easy to visualize (even though this is a verbal rather than a visual strategy).

Let’s try something a little more abstract. Say you’re Scott Atran giving a speech on the genesis of suicide terrorism (taken from an article by Scott Atran, published in Science, and reproduced in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004). Here are the main points you want to cover:

  • Definition (freedom fighters; French Resistance; Nicaraguan Contras; US Congress, act; two official definitions; restriction to suicide terrorism)
  • History (Zealots; hashashin; French Revolution; 20th century revolutions; kamikaze; Middle East — 1981 Beirut; Hezbollah; Hamas; PIJ; Al-Qaida – Soviet – Afghan War; fundamentalism error)
  • Difficulties of defending against (many targets, many attackers, low cost, detection difficulty; prevention)
  • Explaining why (insults; attribution error; Milgram; perceived contexts; interpretation)
  • Poverty link (crime — property vs violent; education; loss of advantage)
  • Institution (unattached young males, normal, personal identity — Palestinians, Bosnians; peer loyalty; emotional manipulation)
  • Benefits (to individuals, to leaders, to organizations; effect of retaliation)
  • Prevention strategies (searches; moles; education; community pressure; need for research)

Rather than coming up with concrete keywords, let’s try these main terms as they appear:

Toynbee’s definition of history fails because it doesn’t explain why poverty is dangerous, how institutions benefit young men, and how to prevent poor young men making history.

Toynbee (a famous historian) was chosen because we always remember things better if they involve an agent — thus ascribing the definition to a person is better than saying “the best definition” or some such phrase.

The trouble with this is that it is not in itself particularly memorable: it doesn’t really tell a story, again it’s simply a coherent sentence. Worse than that, it’s an abstract sentence.

Let’s try again, substituting our abstract words for more concrete terms:

Taking my dictionary in one hand and the history book in the other, I defended myself fiercely against the wine being hurled by the Franciscan monk as I passed by the church. The building gave him the advantage of height and protection, and throwing my books at him only infuriated him. I searched for something else to protect myself with.

I tested this out by trying to recall my little story some hours later. I had no problem with the first part; I had to think a little to recall “advantage”, and I had to really search for “protect”. (I also tried to recall my first, abstract, sentence — this was much harder, and in fact I couldn’t get past “explain why poverty”.)

Let’s try substituting our last two, abstract, words:

Taking my dictionary in one hand and the history book in the other, I defended myself fiercely against the wine being hurled by the Franciscan monk as I passed by the church. But Benedict Arnold joined him, throwing condoms at me.

If you know anyone called Benedict (or Bennie or Ben), that would be better. Or you could use benefactor, though it would help if you have a specific person in mind, who you immediately associate with benefactor. Condoms, of course, represent prevention / protection.

This of course only represents the main headings, the outline of the speech. To remember the points within each heading, you construct a separate story (or different mnemonic) for each one. Thus, your chain linking freedom fighters; French Resistance; Nicaraguan Contras; US Congress, act; two official definitions; restriction to suicide terrorism, will begin with your dictionary. It’s better to construct these separately for several reasons:

  1. it will be a very lengthy story if you include all the details in one story;
  2. if you lose your way, your outline and the other stories will be unaffected;
  3. it’s easier to recover if you get derailed by questions.

As a guideline, there is some evidence, that there is little benefit from using the mnemonic for nine or more items.

An effective story mnemonic

  • tells a meaningful story
  • uses familiar, preferably imageable, words
  • includes elaborative details that help memorability
  • is not too long (fewer than 9 items)
    Adapted from the book: Mnemonics for Study (2nd ed.), authored by Fiona McPherso