Last week I lectured for the second time on a new topic. For my first presentation ten days earlier, I had worked assiduously on the structure, headline subjects, and visual aids. Making changes as I rehearsed, I recopied my written notes several times. Here’s a graphic from that first version.

Anticipating the next lecture just ten days later, I saved my notes (which consist mostly of memory-triggering words) and practiced as I refined my thoughts. My general structure was working, and my notes were serving me well. I planned to use the same outline for the second presentation. Ironing my blouse, I laid them out on my bed, while I practiced out loud. I glanced at them often.  

Notes are like security blankets: if we can see them, we feel we know our material. They are comforting. If they are out of sight, we feel lonely and ill-prepared. That’s why I make them BIG, so I can see my friendly notes from far away. I often use several colors. Whether that helps me remember, or it just makes them pleasing, I’m not sure. I am sure that lavishing attention and care on them keeps me focused on the structure. Since I have a rule that each topic has to fit on one page, I have only a few pages for each lecture. That keeps my note-making job contained, circumscribed.

There were four pages of notes for this particular lecture. I carefully put them into my briefcase when I left my house, so I was sure they were with me when I arrived at the conference. I had them with me as I made my flip-chart visual aids—I leafed through them on the sunny porch where I made those visuals. I arranged them on the lectern during the 15-minute break before my allotted time.

Then—poof! They disappeared.

The host of the event had introduced me, and tidied up the lectern as she stepped aside. My initial theme was securely in my mind and on my lips, so I began speaking without looking down. When I did look down to see my next talking point, I did a double-take. I could not see my notes. Thinking, “They are here somewhere,” I took a long breath, and pressed on with what I imagined should be next.

I was in the midst of my 5-minute introduction, fleshing out my overarching structure, and thinking that surely I would come across my notes soon. In the space under the top of the lectern? No. Under the printout of my CLE written materials? No. I tried to be nonchalant as I searched. Under the nicely-wrapped gift the bar association had given me? Nope. Not anywhere. Nada.

It didn’t occur to me that there was a logical explanation, that my host had taken them by accident and I could ask for them back. Under the influence of adrenaline at the beginning of my speech, I couldn’t begin to imagine where they were, except to think that I had lost my mind and forgotten them completely, that I was incorrect that I ever had them with me.

Now, I desperately thought, all I have is my watch, to time my segments. I fervently prayed to the gods of language that I be able to recall structure, ideas, and words. True, I had my flip chart to help me. There were four sheets, three containing the definition of one word, and one graphic representation of how to think about technique.

There I was, trying to think of my own advice about breathing to flood my brain with oxygen, and speaking in phrases to lay out my ideas. I kept track of my ideas by placing topics on an invisible shelf in front of me. More than usually, I became my own mnemonic device by talking with my hands.

And then a surprising thing happened. After concluding I would never find my notes because they weren’t there, I stopped looking. And then I began to see them in my mind’s eye! There they were, stored in my head. I wasn’t trying to see them, I was trying to remember the ideas they contained. But my brain did me the favor of simply posting my notes on the bulletin board of my short term memory. The glimpses I had of them were fleeting, but helpful. They didn’t stay visible, but emerged at a few opportune times. I was too surprised to try to summon them on my own. But was I grateful? Oh, yes!

Reflecting on this event, I am not completely sure what to make of it. I had finally accepted the notion that my notes were gone, so I had relaxed and moved on to coming up with the best structured improvisation I could summon. I have a distinct memory of seeing “practice under pressure” written in my writing, which I had left out. That vision reminded me to loop back and elaborate on how to become increasingly confident. It was a particularly important point of my whole lecture, and I recall being thrilled to see it in my mind’s eye.

Once my notes made their first appearance on the great visual screen of my brain, they gave me confidence that I was on the right track. Perhaps they had become part of my long-term memory store of facts and ideas transferred from short-term to elaborated cognition. Had I stared at them enough that they were imprinted in my visual memory? Maybe that means we can rely on our visual memory to “see” more than we think we can. Or maybe that is one way we remember, and I never noticed it before.

Some days, your mind’s eye has 20-20 vision. Your notes can become your own invisible visual aid.

Have you experienced anything similar? What’s your story of remembering under pressure?