Chester Santos | International Man of Memory (Episode 438)

Think you have a lousy time remembering things? You’re probably not giving your brain enough credit. According to this expert, it’s never too late to expand your capacity for memory.

“Definitely everyone can dramatically improve their memory from where it currently is with the right training and practice.” -Chester Santos

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Even the worst memory can be improved dramatically — at any age.
  • Learn how you can (and why you should) give speeches and presentations without any notes.
  • What forgotten (and practical) skill can help you spark the powers of recollection?
  • Use all your senses to build a map for remembering.
  • You’ll be as surprised as we were at how one memory trick can make a seemingly impossible task ridiculously easy within minutes!
  • And so much more…


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Ah, memory. Some of us seem to have an innate power to recall the most intricate details of events, names, objects, places, and dates with little to no effort. And then there are those of us who are always misplacing our car keys and can’t remember much beyond this morning’s breakfast (if we’re that lucky).

In this episode of The Art of Charm, we talk to 2008 USA Memory Champion Chester Santos (aka The International Man of Memory) about how anyone — at any age — can tap into and vastly improve their ability to remember anything from foreign language vocabulary to the names of everyone they’ll ever meet. You might say you’ll find this episode to be quite…unforgettable! Enjoy.

More About This Show

USA Memory Champion Chester Santos, known as The International Man of Memory, is one of the world’s foremost experts on memory training. He’s helped thousands of people around the world to realize the benefits of an improved memory and sharper mind. He’s given memory improvement tips on CNN and PBS, trained employees at NASDAQ OMX and Credit Suisse, and has been a guest speaker at Berkeley and Harvard.

When he’s not helping people develop the extraordinary power of their minds, Chester is working on a new book about memory improvement and brain fitness due out this year.

His ability to remember remarkable amounts of information may seem like a superpower to most of us, but he insists that we all have the capacity to be remarkable memorizers, too. “I use systems, really, that anybody can learn in order to pull off those feats of memory,” says Chester, “and there are real-world business applications to those techniques.”

A Superpower Reveals Itself

Even though he had grown up with a reputation for having an exceptional memory, it wasn’t until he was randomly flipping through channels on television in 2000 that he suspected he still had a lot to learn. “I happened to catch a segment on ABC’s 20/20…on the United States National Memory Championship. I saw what the contestants were doing. And since I was known for having a good memory, I thought that it was a competition that I might be able to do well at. However, when I looked into what the best people in the country were scoring in the various events, I quickly realized that even though I had a really good memory, I could not get anywhere close to those results. I was not able to memorize a deck of cards in less than five minutes. I wasn’t able to memorize a hundred-plus digit sequence perfectly in five minutes. Or hundreds of names. I wasn’t able to do those things even though I had a good memory. Even though I realized I couldn’t hang with the best in the country, I was still interested in competing and I wanted to see how I could take my memory — which was very good — and make it even better. So that’s when I started researching into memory training techniques.”

After reading lots of books and poking around online, Chester found methods of training that worked best for him and started working in earnest with that subset of techniques. Eventually, it worked, and he became not only able to “hang with the best in the country,” but the champion of that very same contest in 2008. Since then, he’s been devoted to helping others achieve more with their memories — applied to their careers, personal lives, and education — than they ever believed possible.

To get an idea of what’s become possible to Chester, who was only once able to boast a “good” memory, he knows — by heart — the following:

  • All of his credit card numbers.
  • His passport number.
  • All of the Kentucky Derby results from 1875-2010 (horse, jockey, and time).
  • All 535 members of the House and Senate, along with their names, states, districts, parties, and positions (over 4k pieces of data).

But even he had to begin his journey somewhere. “I started off with the very basic types of memory improvement techniques,” says Chester, “which involve visualization. You’re going to utilize additional senses from there. You use your creativity and imagination to make what you are seeing and experiencing crazy, unusual, and extraordinary. I started out using something called the Story Method, which incorporates those principles and I really just started practicing with random words. That’s the easiest thing, I feel, to start out with.”

Moreover, Mere Mortals May Memorize Mightily

So Chester was blessed with the head start of a “good” memory, but what about those of us who struggle to remember our own telephone numbers? He concedes that there may be an element of talent to this whole memorization business, but it’s mostly hard work — for anyone. “I would say that if you start out with a memory that maybe is not so great, you might have to put in more training to reach a certain level, whereas someone else could reach that same level if they have more of a natural ability…but it would take them less training. In the end, I feel everyone is capable of achieving really extraordinary things with their memory. Definitely, everyone can dramatically improve their memory from where it currently is with the right training and practice. I strongly believe that anyone can learn to give a speech or presentation from memory without notes. Anyone can do that with training and practice. Anyone can commit to memory important business-related facts and figures to be perceived as more of an expert in [their] field. Anyone can get better at remembering names to get more out of networking and build better business and personal relationships.”

So maybe you could’ve been a contender in the USA Memory Championship. Or maybe not. But you don’t have to be an Olympic-level athlete to understand the benefits of getting regular exercise, either. As Chester says, it doesn’t matter where you start in your quest to improve your memory, but you’ll notice a dramatic difference wherever you end up — with the right training and practice.

Age doesn’t even play as much of a factor in this process as you might think; Chester has taught people from eight years old to 90.

“In January, I had a woman in my workshop that was 85 years old [and] was razor sharp, believe it or not,” says Chester. “She actually completely outperformed people in the workshop that were in their 30s!”

How Do I Begin Mastering My Memory?

So how can you begin improving your own memory? Chester has one simple suggestion that could serve as an important first step. “When you think about it, we all used to be really good at remembering the [phone] numbers of friends [and] family members…Nowadays, if you give someone one phone number, they get scared to death of trying to commit that to memory…I think people should try to commit more and more phone numbers to memory — you still have it there in your phone, but make an effort to dial some numbers from memory. I think that’s an easy way to exercise your memory on a daily basis.”

How about if you have a specific goal in mind, like memorizing eight pages of notes for a big presentation you’ve got coming up? Chester recommends what he calls the Journey Method. Among the ancient Greeks, it was a mnemonic known as the Method of Loci (location), but you may have also heard of it as the Memory Palace. Basically, the idea is this:

You envision a location that’s familiar to you. It could be your house. It could be the commute to work. It could be the path to your favorite fishing spot. As long as you can traverse it effortlessly, it should be perfect for this exercise.

You begin to memorize the points and subpoints of your notes in order, attaching them mentally to certain stops on the journey. You already know what you’ll encounter along that well-worn path — and in what sequence. By designating the points you’re making in your speech to specific places on this path, you’ll more easily ensure they stay in order and act as landmarks that lead you to the next location and its corresponding point.

And so on…

Hey, it worked for Cicero a couple of thousand years ago. It might just work for you, too.

Three Main Principles of Memorization

No matter what method you’re using to memorize something (some will work better for you than others), Chester says there are three main principles that will apply to your efforts.

Visualize: Turn whatever you’re trying to remember into an image.

Utilize additional senses: If you can see it in your mind, you should also be able to mentally hear it, taste it, smell it, and touch it — this activates more areas of your brain and you’re building more connections that will more easily recall the information you’re trying to retrieve.

Make what you are experiencing in your mind crazy, unusual, and extraordinary in some way. “We have a psychological aspect to our memory,” says Chester. “With little to no effort, we remember things that catch us by surprise!” He uses this example: “If an elephant came crashing into your apartment through the front door right now, if it actually happened and it started spraying water all over you guys with its trunk…you might remember that for the rest of your life and always tell that story.”

He adds: “It might be stuck there forever without you putting forth any effort at all to commit that to memory.”

Four Steps to Remembering Names (Plus a Visual-Based Technique)

Have trouble remembering names? You’re not alone. Chester has these four steps that should help.

Step One: Whenever you’re introduced to someone, make it a point to immediately repeat their name and shake their hand. If you get in the habit of doing this, it forces you to pay attention for at least the one or two seconds it takes for someone to give you their name — because there’s an immediate quiz when you have to repeat it back to them!

Step Two: Early on in your interaction with the person, ask them a simple question using their name. Example: “Jordan, how long have you been involved with this organization?”

Step Three: Think of an association between the person’s name and anything at all that you already know. Example: “Jordan” might make you think of “Michael Jordan.”

Step Four: Whenever you leave the place where the introduction was made, make it a point to say goodbye to the person — using their name, of course.

Even better, if you can combine these steps with a visual-based technique, Chester says that “you’re definitely going to be remembering more names than you ever have before. You might not be 100 percent — even I’m not 100 percent — but if you can remember 75+ percent of the people you’re meeting, this is going to be very helpful with your career [and] your personal life.

Using the visual-based technique, you ask yourself how this person — in some way — looks unique to you. It could be a particular facial feature, or it could be something about their overall look. Then, you exaggerate that unique thing in your mind in some way. Next, you come up with an image that reminds you of the name and you mentally link that image to the unique thing about the person.

Chester gives us an example using the name “John” (and apologizes in advance for offending anyone named John who might be reading this).

“If I happen to meet someone named John, and this particular John has ears that look to me to be on the large side, I would exaggerate those in my mind as being gigantic, Dumbo-like ears swinging from the side of his head. And since the name is John, I might imagine a toilet bowl flushing in each ear…if you visualize that for even five seconds, it’s going to be locked in your head. You won’t be able to get rid of it. The second you see that guy again, right away you’re going to notice his ears if you created all this crazy imagery with his ears before. Right away you’ll notice the ears and you’ll instantly know that his name is John.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about what the human brain is capable of achieving, how long it takes Chester to memorize ridiculous amounts of data, what he does to make memorization fun and challenging instead of tedious and torturous, find out how well we do when Chester puts us on the spot to memorize a list of 15 random things, and hear about what trials and tribulations one must endure to become a USA Memory Champion from someone who’s walked the walk. If you’re amazed by what he was able to get us to do in five minutes on the show, there’s no telling what his full-fledged program might do for you — check out the details here!


Resources from this episode:

Chester’s new video
Chester’s speaking information
The Art of Charm bootcamps

You’ll also like:

-The Art of Charm Toolbox
-Best of The Art of Charm Podcast

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