The Alphabet Technique
Remembering Ordered Lists
Many of us have trouble memorizing lists.
Whether they're lists of names, dates, or product features, it's hard to remember everything that you need to know.
This is where a tool like the Alphabet Technique is useful.
The Alphabet Technique is a memory technique that's useful for remembering long lists of items – in a specific order, so that you know when items are missing. As such, it's similar to the number/rhyme and number/shape systems.
With the Alphabet Technique, you associate colorful mental images representing letters of the alphabet with the items that you want to remember, by visualizing scenes that link them together.
By doing this, you're taking advantage of the way that your brain works. It's much easier to remember colorful, memorable mental images, than it is to remember dull facts. This is particularly the case when these images are "pegged" to a sequence that you know very well – such as the letters of the alphabet.
You will probably find it useful to write everything down as you work through the Alphabet Technique. Our worksheet will help you to get started.
How to Use the Alphabet Technique
Step 1: Create images for each letter of the alphabet
The first thing to do when you're using the Alphabet Technique is create images representing each letter in your mind.
When you're doing this, it's useful to create images that are based on the sound of the first syllable of the letter's name. For example, you might represent the letter "K" with the word "cake," or the letter "N" with the word "entrance."
Here is one possible image sequence:
|A||Ace of spades|
If these images aren't meaningful to you or don't stick in your mind, then use other words that have a personal connection to you.
Try to choose words that are visually rich, and suggest a positive emotion. You'll remember positive images more easily than negative ones, and interesting or amusing images are often easier to recall than dull ones.
In his book "Use Your Perfect Memory," Tony Buzan suggests using a system for creating clear images that you can reconstruct if you forget them. Buzan says to take the phonetic letter sound as the first consonant – and then, for the rest of the consonants in the word, use the first letters, in alphabetical order, that make a memorable word.
For instance, for the letter "S" (root "Es"), try to think of any strong images when you create a word starting with "EsA," "EsB," "EsC," "EsD," "EsE," and so on.
Buzan's approach has the advantage of producing an image that you can remember more easily if you forget it. However, you might decide that this unnecessarily complicates a relatively simple system. In any case, it's best to choose the strongest image that you can visualize.
You can use the same images for every list that you want to remember. You don't need to choose new images each time.
Step 2: Link the images to the information you want to remember
Once you've firmly visualized these images, and you've linked them to their root letters, you can associate them with the information that you want to remember. To do this, you visualize a scene that links the image for that letter with the item that you want to remember.
For example, imagine that you need to remember the names of 19th and 20th Century philosophers.
First, you would decide on the order that you want to remember them in. (Remember, the Alphabet Technique is great for remembering ordered lists.)
Then, you would link each philosopher's name to a letter of the alphabet, by visualizing a scene, like so:
|A||Ace||Freud||A crisp ACE being pulled out of a FRying pan (FRied)|
|B||Bee||Chomsky||A BEE stinging a CHiMp and flying off into the SKY|
|C||Sea||Genette||A ship on a stormy SEA lifting a GENerator out of the water in a NET|
|D||Diesel||Derrida||A DIESEL train racing through the countryside with a DaRing RIDer surfing on top of it.|
|E||Eagle||Foucault||An EAGLE attaching a kung FU master.|
|F||Effluent||Joyce||An EFFLUENT pipe being shut off by JOYful environmentalists.|
|G||Jeans||Nietzche||A torn pair of JEANS showing someone's kNeE through a hole.|
|H||H-bomb||Kafka||An H-bomb blowing up a grimy, gray CAFé.|
As you can see from this example, you may have to be creative when picturing your scene for each item!
It can be quite complicated and time-consuming to start using the Alphabet Technique, and you'll need some practice to use it effectively.
The Alphabet Technique is only useful for lists of 26 or fewer items. Take a look at the Journey Technique if you want to remember more things than this.
For additional tips and strategies on choosing appropriate mnemonics, see our article Introduction to Memory Techniques.
The Alphabet Technique links items you want to remember with images that are associated with letters of the alphabet. This allows you to remember a medium-length list in a specific sequence.
By connecting images to letters of the alphabet, you'll know if you've forgotten individual list items, and you'll know the cues that you'll need to use to remember them.