Updated: Oct 10
Between my junior and senior years of high school, I went with my mom and my brother "T" to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a week to visit Mom's parents, who were missionaries there. We had all sorts of adventures, but the experience that's on my mind today happened when we went to church.
Before the meeting started, "T" and I got into a conversation with Oleg, an older man who was an English teacher. He told us that the best way to remember new words was to connect them with similar-sounding words. As an example, he would pat his own leg every time he said his name. Then he asked us what our names were.
Well, my brother's name has the syllable ty, and he was wearing a necktie, so he had it easy. Me, on the other hand . . . What in the world do you do for Candice without any props handy? I tried pretending to shake a can full of dice, but it didn't get the point across. In fact, I suspect Oleg thought I was a little weird. 🤷🏻♀️
Thankfully, when we want to make our readers remember something from our work, we're not limited to what we can convey through charades. In fact, when we're writing nonfiction for general audiences (as opposed to, say, for an academic journal), it can tremendously help readers if we come up with some mnemonic devices for them. This is even truer when we're offering a lot of new information and/or a lot of it is fairly abstract. Here are some examples:
In one of my favorite books, Crucial Conversations, the authors use many acronyms and alliterative or rhyming phrases (e.g., Start with Heart, Learn to Look, STATE My Path, etc.) to help readers remember the steps for promoting honest, respectful dialogue.
While this example was verbal rather than written, it made a huge difference to me. In my first college French course, we started learning about the very confusing past tense in French. To help us remember some of the suffixes we had to attach to verbs, our teacher taught us a little song using the chorus to the old Mickey Mouse Club theme song. Instead of spelling "M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E," we'd spell three of the suffixes: "A-I-S, A-I-T, A-I-E-N-T." Twelve years later, I still use that trick!
You can use rhymes, similar-sounding words, songs, acronyms, images, or anything else you can think of. The most important thing is that the result is (a) accurate and (b) memorable. If you'd like to brainstorm together, pick a time here for us to do it!
(Thanks to Dan Smedley for sharing their work on Unsplash.)