How To Remember Stuff

I long suspected this was the case, and now we’ve proof: Try too hard to remember something and you can almost feel yourself forgetting it. Stop trying to remember and it will come back. Of course, this could be extended to other mental activity: Your brain can only cope with so much stuff, so better to let it float and do what it wants to do. If it’s a good brain and has plenty to feed on, it should give you what you want in its own sweet time. Hey, a slacker’s manifesto.

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One explanation for this fascinating failure of memory is retrieval-induced forgetting, in which the retrieval of closely related concepts and words actually competes with the word or concept you intended to retrieve (discussed previously). The intended item becomes available only after the residual activity among the incorrectly retrieved items has decayed.

Jim’s Answer To The Moleskine

My friend Jim was passing through town the other day, and we compared Moleskines. Or rather, I brought out my immaculate Moleskine and he brought out a black pile of something or other. I asked him to tell me about it in response to a comment from someone about the benefits of the Moleskine pocket on an earlier post. Jim posted his comments here but I reproduce them here in full, along with pictures:

To add to the great debate, Moleskin versus Miquelrius.

My qualifications, in brief, included 14 years in journalism, consulting, peacekeeping and roaming the world for other NGOs and international organizations. As a shorthand writer as well as one time foreign correspondent and official diplomatic notetaker, I think the old fashioned paper notebook is more reliable, in the long run, and less intimidating. It can transition gracefully from presidential palace to remote village. It doesn’t get crushed, run out of batteries or attract attention. Wrap it in a Zip Loc bag and its waterproof.

While I like the Moleskine’s “high end” features such as the strap, pagemarker and back pocket useful, it has drawbacks. The Moleksin has less volume, therefore I use one every three months as compared to a Miquelrius every eight months, even with extensive notetaking. This means the Moleskin is less useful as a portable archive.

Size does matter, but the Miqquelrius is still small enough to fit in a trouser pocket.

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (open)

The Moleskine is also more expensive, so using them more frequently adds to the cost.

It is narrower more difficult to do good shorthand. The width also limits your ability to sketch and draw, everything from organigrams to the scenery.

My solution? Improvise with the Miquelrius to get something just right. Add a small envelope to the back. I use left over wedding RSVP envelopes:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook pocket #3

I generally use two green elastic bands for section dividers. I picked those up wrapped around my vegetables from Trader Joes. The elastic bands the postman leaves behind also work:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (wide)

Pages can also be marked with Post-It Flags, paper clips and regular Post-It Notes folded back into the page you last used. My pictured notebook has been around the world a few times, including to a few remote African and Indonesian villages. It looks a bit tattered by the time you get it back to Washington, but I reckon there is nothing better for your “street cred” as a guy who knows what’s going on in the field than walking into a meeting with a weathered notebook.

Thanks, Jim.

PR Pitches And The Foibles Of Memory

PR folk and journalists have an uncertain relationship. Journalists know they’re being spun, but PR people can be helpful, providing fast access to new sources, evaluation units and story ideas. But if you’re in PR, and you claim victory, make sure you get your facts right.

I recently read on PRNewswire about how I had been pitched by Brian D. Johnson, PR director for CenterBeam, a network-management outsourcer. “In the summer of 2003 he sent a press release to Jeremy Wagstaff, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, who covers technology in the “Loose Wire” column on the Journal’s Web site, and also runs a daily blog of the same name. At a time when the computer virus threat ran high, Johnson offered 10 tips for protecting one’s PC. Wagstaff ran the column verbatim on his blog, positioning CenterBeam as an expert resource.” The release goes on to say (you can find the full piece in PDF format on Brian’s blog):

“It takes strategy to score a blog win of that magnitude. “I knew from his blog that [Wagstaff] was a fan of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and so I wrapped my 10-point plan in a metaphor of [the movie],” Johnson says. “Just as the humans defend their mountain castle using successive lines of defense, network security defends a system using a tiered system of blockades.”

Blogs offer a new opportunity to craft that kind of pinpoint pitch. “If I read Jeremy Wagstaff’s blog every hour of every day, I am peering deeply into his consciousness as a journalist,” Johnson adds. “If somebody is printing their consciousness on line every hour of the day, then I as a PR person have an opportunity and an obligation to understand how that person operates and how to appeal to them.”

Well, sort of. It’s true Brian sent me an email with a flattering intro (“Love your column and the blog. Kudos to you for all the fine work”),  a good pitch, and I responded with interest. The piece he sent was good, and I reproduced it in full in my column. The column proved popular: The Lord of the Rings element worked well, and helped readers visualise the problem.

But some aspects of Brian’s memory of the encounter worry me. While it’s true that PR folk should study blogs as a prelude to making a pitch (indeed, I’m often surprised by how little homework PR folk do before trying to establish connection with journalists), and Brian’s point that regular reading of a blog is the best way to get a feel for the blogger/journalist in question, he didn’t get it right in this instance. 

First off, the sequence of events: Brian didn’t send the 10 points out without my asking for it, so PR folk should not believe that publications might just reproduce something they put together that isn’t tailor made and exclusive to the publication. Contact must first be established, credentials demonstrated, and a specific request made by the journalist in question. Secondly, if you’re going to do your research, do it properly: As far as I know I’ve never mentioned Lord of the Rings in my blog (I’ve seen the movies; they’re good, but I’m not a huge fan), so just how far was Brian ‘peering into my consciousness’?

In fact, Brian’s pitch worked for slightly different reasons than those he mentions. Lord of the Rings aside, he did some homework before he wrote to me, established that he was knowledgeable about the subject matter (viruses), didn’t try to sell me anything obvious (most pitches involve ‘our product is best’, a big turn-off) and offered various options (“or we could chat about best practices for individual users”). When I agreed, he came back with something good, well-written and didn’t have any specific bias. It was the first time I’d handed over the column to someone else and it worked.

All kudos to Brian, but his faulty memory of why he got past my spin filter undermines the effectiveness of the message he delivers: That PR should use blogs to better understand the journalists/bloggers they’re trying to reach.