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In Defence of Bad Memory: How to Deal with Unreliable Witnesses

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Our memory is selective. I was recently asked if there was a speaker I aspired to for delivery style, and I answered with Andrew Solomon—I’d watched his TED talk countless times, although I hadn’t done so for a while when I got the question. I told him that Andrew’s delivery was fantastic, impactful, and memorable. I couldn’t remember what technique he used, but I assured my friend that it was worth watching the TED talk.

But when I came home and watched the same talk for the umpteenth time, I was surprised to see that his delivery was not particularly exceptional. In fact, he tended to raise his chin up a little too much that if you were sitting in the audience in front of him, you might feel left out. The content of his Speech was such a pleasure to watch that I hardly paid attention to how he performed on stage.

On other speeches, it was the opposite. Quite often, I don’t know what was it exactly that made me so bored, but I know I would rather watch the next McDonald’s ads on TV rather than listen until the end. I wondered if I could recall the opposite of what actually happened when I watched other people, then what about my own speech? It’s possible that my recollection was affected more by whether I’ve had a bad day rather than my performance.

I’m afraid that if my speeches weren’t what I thought they were, then how can I use my memory to Improve my skill? Besides, I know when the stakes are higher, such as in a speaking competition, I tend to be a harsher critic of my own work. Even if I do well, I will more likely to remember all the little blunders I should not have made.

Dale Carnegie wrote in Public Speaking for Success:

Good speakers usually find when they finish that there have been four versions of the speech: the one they delivered, the one they prepared, the one the newspapers say was delivered, and the one on the way home they wish they had delivered.

He is referring to the four distinct memories of speeches. Bad, fading memories and multiple testimonies contradict each other. Because of this, many people don’t get better after they present publicly. How do you know if the butterfly on your stomach was caused by the speech you did and not your hungry belly? Imagine if you can do what I did with Andrew Solomon’s TED talk earlier. Like in a conference where everything is recorded, you don’t have to rely on your memory or other people’s as the only witnesses anymore.

We have new shiny tools now

A decade ago, we just got smart phones, and video recording was something you needed specialised equipment for. A decade ago, we didn’t have Youtube, but now we are spoilt for choice when deciding what to watch. Recording and sharing videos are no longer activities limited to professional videographers. Today, the technology is literally in the palm of our hands, and we can certainly make good use of it. If you have a bad memory, then we have a device that will make it irrelevant—just like being short-sighted was not a thing anymore after glasses were made accessible.

In 2010, a group of 16 graduate students at Buffalo State College were divided into two groups and asked to deliver two 10 minute presentations each, one month apart.1 The control group was asked to do self-assessments after every session, while the treatment group did the same but with the help of video recording. The students in the treatment group found it easy to plan what to improve on the second presentation whereas the students in the control group were not so sure about how their presentation went. The researcher noted that not having the video deprived the students of being able to see any errors.

You’re your own worst critic

In the same study, the students were also asked to do peer-assessments on others. The study also found that the self-assessment scores were lower than the peer-assessments scores in general, regardless of whether they were in the control or treatment group. With or without video recordings, the students were their own worst critics.

It is important, therefore, to keep an objective leash on how you think about your own delivery. Having a video would allow you to look at yourself as an impartial observer would. See yourself with fresh eyes. How you thought you moved on stage could be very different to how you actually moved! Rewind as many times as you like to find phrases that are hard to pronounce, dips in energy levels, opportunities for tone variations and much more. Pick one that frustrates you the most, then set a goal to improve it for the next speech.

Once you become used to recording your speech, you will be able to measure your current skill level, set a goal on what to improve next, then assess your progress accordingly. Keep a firm plan and make smaller circles,2 that’s how you will improve.

Every little thing matters

Every single time you rewatch your speech, you’re bound to form a second opinion about it. Why does this matter? It matters because public speaking is a highly personal skill. Michelle Obama’s passionate gestures may not be for you, but Nelson Mandela’s slow pace in speaking may work for you. If it does, steal it like an artist.3

It takes five minutes to record, an hour to analyse and a lifetime to benefit from. A video that can be replayed over and over again is a source of inspiration when you ask that same question ever so often: what can I improve on now?


  1. GUO, Ruth Xiaoqing. “The use of video recordings as an effective tool to improve presentation skills.” (2013).
  2. Josh Waitzkin states the notion of learning as “making smaller circles” where the learner uses the new knowledge she just learned and push it into her unconscious mind. Once that happen, she can progress to add more depth to her learning.
  3. Austin Kleon in his book, Steal Like an Artist advocates for seeing any creative work as a collection of great ideas stolen from other artists.


This post first appeared on Sandwich Press, please read the originial post: here

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In Defence of Bad Memory: How to Deal with Unreliable Witnesses

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