Friday, June 4, 2010

Speaking science: Boost your memory by talking out loud

A good memory can be a great gift, whether you’re a new speaker trying to remember your core message or recall the punch line of a joke. Looking for a way to plant those key points firmly in your head? Say them out loud.

When psychologist Colin MacLeod and his colleagues tested the memories of their University of Waterloo students with lists of words, they found that the students were more likely to remember words that they had spoken aloud compared to words they had read silently. Even mouthing the words—without a sound—made them more memorable.

The memory boost happened when the students spoke nonsense words like slass and manty, and the researchers saw no signs of “lazy reading” where the students paid less attention to the silently read words. So why would speaking or mouthing make a word stick in the brain?

MacLeod and the others say that the act of producing a word is important. Producing a word by speaking or mouthing makes it 10 to 20% more likely that the word will be remembered even weeks later, they discovered.

The researchers think that producing the word makes it distinctive, giving it a special tag that the brain can consult when it tries to recall whether it’s seen the word before. But it’s a trick that only works if your brain is comparing produced words to unproduced words. When the scientists asked one group of students to read aloud all of the words in a list, they were no better at remembering any of the words than those who read silently.

Practicing parts of your speech aloud and other parts silently could help you highlight the important bits and make them easier to remember. But is there a tipping point? I asked MacLeod how much of a speech you could practice aloud before the spoken words lose their distinction. Half a speech? No more than three or four key words per minute?

“We actually tried this,” he said. “We had 25% or 75% of the words read aloud and the rest silent, the thinking being that fewer words might be even more distinctive. But although there was a bit of a difference, it wasn’t reliable statistically, so the best I can say is that as long as some but not all of the material is aloud, you’ll get a production effect.”

MacLeod said he hasn’t pitted “aloud” versus “mouthed” yet, to find out whether one type of production boosts memory more than the other. But an experiment by one of his colleagues suggests that the quieter the spoken word, the less memorable it might be. “Yelling is even better,” MacLeod joked, “so maybe the louder the better!”

In the right setting, you might use the production effect to help your audience walk away a memorable message. The call and response style used in churches, political rallies and even rock concerts is one way to make your audience into producers as well. “Here, of course, you’d be turning heard words to spoken words instead of read to spoken,” MacLeod said, “but I think it should work.”

Voice coach and trainer Kate Peters has collected a number of other reasons why speakers should take the time to read out loud.  Let me know if you're trying this tactic and how it's working for you.

(Editor's note:  This post was contributed by freelance writer Becky Ham reports and writes for The Eloquent Woman on the science behind public speaking.)

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