Book Review: Moonwalking With Einstein

by | Jan 31, 2020

I spent most of 2018 reading services and marketing (and services marketing) related books. Learning about polymaths and mental models has led me to focus on branching out more in 2020 and expanding to different topics, with the idea they will inform my marketing work in ways traditional marketing books will not.

This is one of those books. I would have never thought to pick this up had a friend not highly recommended it, but it was quite possibly my favorite of 2019.

The story is the author was covering the US Memory Championships as a journalist, intrigued by how these people could memorize multiple decks of cards in minutes among other seemingly impossible feats of cognitive ability. To his surprise, one contestant suggests the author himself could not only learn how to perform the same mental feats but actually win the competition if he committed to learning and practicing the techniques they employ.

What follows is a fascinating story of the author’s path to the USA Memory Championships, as well as amazing insights into the human brain and how our memories really work.

There’s a lot in here and I’d recommend buying it yourself, but I’ll focus on my biggest takeaways.

The first is that our brains are still 10,000 years old, and they really haven’t evolved much since the caveman days. This means we’re great at remembering things that were important to us as cavemen, like where food is, how to get home, and what a tiger or other forms of danger look like. We evolved to have really good spacial and image memory because it was crucial to our survival.

We’re not very good at remembering numbers and words, because that wasn’t really a thing back then.

If you think about it, you know this to be true. It’s why I can walk myself through my childhood home I haven’t been in for over a decade, but I can’t remember what my wife told me to pick up at the grocery store an hour ago. You could probably mentally walk down your street at home, describing each house, or through your high school and where some of your classes were. Some of the detail is wild when you consider what you have trouble remembering in every day life.

Knowing this, the trick is to apply your strengths to your weaknesses, that is apply spaces and extremely vivid imagery to words or numbers (or playing cards) you want to remember.

It’s called a Memory Palace. This is the primary technique professional memorizers use. It comes from a fifth century B.C. Poet named Simonides of Ceos, whose technique is documented in an anonymously written book called the Rhetorica ad Herennium.

The idea is to take anything you’re trying to memorize, lets say that grocery list I forgot, apply images to it, and then put those images in a place you remember well.

So my list is: bread, salmon and eggs. I want to use my childhood home as my “palace” and put these items along a route through my house. So I walk up the front path and the bread is on the front stoop, on the top wood stair. I open the door to the front patio and turn to the left, and there’s my mom sitting in her chair watching TV, with eggs cracked on her head (making the things funny or weird makes them more vivid and thus easier to remember). I walk through the door to the living room and to the left is the salmon playing my Dad’s big black grand piano, playing the Charlie Brown theme song my dad used to play for us all the time. Now when I go through the grocery store, I just walk through my house in my mind and the list is there, waiting for me in my old house.

It sounds super weird but try it, it works. The more you practice the more complicated things you can remember. Like whole decks of playing cards. Or people’s names at a party.

This is a cool personal life hack, but the book contains keen insights on effective marketing as well despite never mentioning the word. Think about what we’re good at remembering: Images and spaces. The weirder the better. Why do you think you remember the guy on the horse backwards in the Old Spice commercials? Why do you still say BUD-WEIS-ER in the frog voice?

It’s vivid imagery you associated positively with a brand. The words didn’t matter. I have no idea what the Old Spice guy said about why Old Spice is great, I just know the commercials made me laugh and when I’m standing in the deodorant aisle my eyes hit Old Spice and for reasons unknown I’m drawn to buying it. We all do it, even that guy who thinks advertising doesn’t work on him. He’s wrong and needs to be more self observant.

I’m sure this sounds completely obvious to most. At least until the bill comes to do a professional video, or hiring a photographer to take professional images of your product. Or the awkwardness sets in of being on camera for an Instagram Story. Or the time it takes to do this stuff yourself. It’s harder than writing copy but it’s what will resonate with your audience most and create that mystical brand lift that raises your Google Ad click through rates and the conversion rate of your website. It’s what will get your customers to pay more for the same product or service because they’re presold before they even walk into your store.

This is critical stuff, and while you may have been aware of it the fact our brains are literally hardwired better for it should drive home more emphasis on quality and expenditures of time and money to do it well.

Amazing what a book about memory competitions can teach you about growing your business.

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