Stories. They’re All Stories.

One of my colleagues asked me how I remembered details of peoples’ lives like I do.

My answer: Stories. They’re all stories.

Stories are how we connect. No matter what happens to you, you are creating a story about it in your mind. It’s how we cope with things. It’s how we organize what happens to us.

It’s also how we remember things. We can only store between 5 and 9 things in our short term memories at a given time. Those 5 to 9 things can be either facts, songs, or stories. That’s the reason that even as adults when we are having trouble alphabetizing something, we find ourselves singing that song. You know the one.

I actually have a horrible time memorizing. I remember the stories and patterns to something quicker than I can memorize the facts. It’s part of the reason I have to work so hard to remember names. I try extra hard to remember as many names as I can. That’s why I actually remember more names than most. I try really hard.

The best way to remember something that you really want to remember is to make it into a story or a song. This group of techniques is called chunking. Not the most palatable term as the lady at Waffle House told me one time.

Chunking works by combining several factoids into a form so that instead of trying to recall a dozen facts, you are remembering a single song or story.

In addition to building these chunks of memory, we have to build the proper triggers or associations.

When I was in the ninth grade, we had to memorize the periodic table for a test. We had to know the first 92 elements’ name, number and symbol. Potassium is K with a number of 19. The way I remember this to this day is because there is potassium in bananas. You put bananas into cereal. Product 19 and Special K are cereals. Even now, when someone mentions the letter K, I think of potassium. Go figure. The same thing happens with the number 19.

When creating your memory chunks, you have to build them in a way that allows the proper triggers to be put into place. With proper triggers, remembering these factoids actually becomes a habit. Eventually instead of even having to remember the story, the trigger will cause you to remember the facts associated with that trigger instinctively.


Join the Conversation


  1. Wow! I never thought of it this way. This is very insightful and true. My own ability to recall may partly be through chunking as well. Just this morning I had to setup the CS ODBC driver for a customer. I’ve done this more than anyone on the planet as I reported all the original bugs and wrote the original KB article on it. But those credentials meant nothing. I had no recollection while staring at client’s screen on what to do and did the old “let me check on something I’ll be right back”. I had vague recollection on subsequent steps for further configuration but missing the front door entry piece of info that would fire the synapse. It was like meeting people u know after a long absence but not remembering any of their names (this happened recently!).

    I’m just not good with names in general either. Always easier to remember @Bertowud than your own name because the story behind that is so clear and memorable. Also it’s how a 4-yr old could’ve said your name. So this morning’s trigger was remembering “ISAM – Sam I am”! I always thought this is what Dr Seuss would say about the old database technology called ISAM (used by the driver) and he would also say “And now boys and girls, I is for Install” and then I knew oh yeah “pvxiosvr -i”. Lame and udderly stupid but it was my trigger and everything subsequent to that I recalled instantly. I started conversation with IT guy looking lame but I left looking smart.

    I have to create more triggers like you do. I’m really good with visual association for memory recall and I think subconsciously I do some chunking (alliteration, rhyming, allusions to songs and movies) but w/o the trigger the later instant recall doesn’t come so quick. Great article! Thanks for posting a self-help Bertowud’s advice column on Super Hero Garage. This and the Poe one are your best I think.

    And no matter your audience size keep writing for your own behalf! This weekend I had half-way taken down Ruminations of Alnoor private blog you helped me setup. Was about to delete the whole thing as it was about a past chapter but then I read my own posts and could not believe I had the capacity / capability of writing personal content like that and in such a meaningful way. I had forgotten how important it was for me to write and “get it out there”. It was important so I didn’t delete.

    So for you, keep writing, keep shipping like your friend Seth Godin says. Keep reacting to a single inspirational comment or question someone asks you in personal or work capacity and make that your topic. You’ll look back on your content years later and feel content, methinks. When you can’t come up with topics, you can always resort to movie or book reviews.

    Man, to this day I still wish there was a local Waffle House!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I miss your updates on that blog. It was good even if you and I were the only ones reading it.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *