Katie Kermode is one of the most talented memory athletes of all time. She has broken the Names & Faces world record on her very first memory championship in 2008. Ever since then she has established herself a reputation of improving steadily in all disciplines. We spoke with her about her passion.
Memory-Sports: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Katie Kermode: I live near Manchester, UK, with my husband and our two young children. I’m a freelance translator and my work is in Dutch, German and French. I’ve always been interested in languages so it’s an ideal job for me.
Memory-Sports: How did you get to memory sports?
Katie Kermode: When I was 10, a teacher at school taught us how to memorise a list by linking objects together to make stories. I found this fascinating! I read a few books on memory during my time at university, and that’s where I first heard about memory competitions. Straight away I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t know whether I was good enough so I put it off for a long time but eventually picked Ben Pridmore’s Cambridge Memory Championship to be my first competition, back in 2008.
Memory-Sports: For what do you use memory techniques outside of memory competitions?
Katie Kermode: The only things that spring to mind are memorising shopping lists and Rubik’s Cube moves. It would be great if I could use them to become more organised though!
Memory-Sports: Do you think it would be helpful to teach memory techniques at schools and universities and how would you imagine that?
Katie Kermode: I often hear people expressing scepticism about the usefulness of memorising in education. Understanding concepts is vital, of course, but I also believe that memory techniques can play a role in allowing students to build up more knowledge and, ultimately, be able to make more associations and understand more concepts. If you can remember your course content that’s going to go a long way towards helping you get good exam results. Imagine if students were shown these techniques from the start, and worked together to come up with mnemonics. Or teachers and lecturers actually incorporated these concepts into their teaching. I think that would be fantastic.
Memory-Sports: How often do you train your memory?
Katie Kermode: I try to do around 10–30 minutes almost every day, and occasionally longer.
Memory-Sports: You are a genius with names. How do you memorize them and how is it different to strategies from others?
Katie Kermode: In the International Names & Faces disciplines, I just read the names quickly and identify the nationality of each name. I don’t always use images or spend time trying to make associations. I go through several times. Being familiar with different languages really helps. I don’t speak any Polish, for instance, but I know how it is pronounced (more or less) and so the spelling isn’t difficult for me. I’ve watched football (soccer) all my life and have seen so many names from different countries that I’m able to recognise a lot of common endings and features of names from all over the world. I pay attention to every name I see, and so I’m constantly learning.
ML Names feels a little harder because the names are mostly American and not as distinctive, and there are no surnames to give added “meaning”. I don’t have a dictionary of premade images but in ML Names I make a spontaneous link using any meaning I can think of, or just get a feel for the name and how it matches the face.
My strategy is similar to one or two other competitors, but I know that using set images and/or locations is very common. Rather than locations, I have tried using peg words for ML Names and it works OK, but it isn’t my preferred method.
Memory-Sports: You are also a wizard with words. How do you do it and why are you so good?
Katie Kermode: I place 4 words in each location. Each of my locations has a fixed person in it, and I link the story to them. (I do this for the other disciplines, too.) This makes it a lot more meaningful and easier for me to recall. I read through the words quite quickly and don’t worry about visualising objects or making every word into something concrete. I don’t know why this is a good event for me, but it’s one I enjoy.
Memory-Sports: Do you have some tips for both events for us?
Katie Kermode: Get to know names from around the world and learn to pronounce them (this is actually not a huge task – English is exceptional in having so many exceptions). For both events, try going faster and looking at the names or words several times if possible. Some names and words will stick without any effort and then you can focus on the ones that didn’t. During recall, I type (or write) the first letter of each word or name, then go back and fill them all in. This allows me to go over the information quickly so it doesn’t evaporate, but putting in the first letter means at least I have something to jog my memory if needed.
Memory-Sports: Do you believe you have talent or is it all training?
Katie Kermode: It’s hard to talk about natural ability in memory sport because we usually prefer to emphasise the importance of training, but I suppose I have always had a good memory, which helped me break the World Record in Names & Faces at my first competition. When it comes to cards and numbers, I have to train a lot, of course.
Memory-Sports: You are doing this now for many years but you seem to have found new motivation. Please tell us more about it.
Katie Kermode: My motivation has always been strong, but I took two long breaks from competing when I had my children. Now I’m back competing as often as I can.
Things have changed a huge amount over the past year though. For a long time, I used a category-based 3-digit system. I liked it but never became as fast as I wanted to be. About a year ago I started reading the numbers as syllables, although the syllables weren’t related to the name of the image. For instance, my 500s category was “animals”. 578 was a goldfish, but the Ben System syllable for 578 is “leef”. So I was almost learning a new language (memorising it like vocabulary: leef = goldfish, leem = camel). This innovation didn’t make me much faster but did make it easier for me to create a 2-card system that overlapped with my numbers.
The breakthrough came last July when Lance Tschirhart, who had already helped me a huge amount with the design of my card system and the use of the syllables, suggested I try using the words already made by the syllables (e.g. 578 would be “leaf”). I’d never considered changing the type of system I used, but I take Lance’s advice seriously because, as well as being one of the best in the world, he has very clever training strategies and ideas. I tried this out with a subset of images and couldn’t help noticing how much faster it was. Within a day or two I’d abandoned the category system I’d been using for 8 years! After 2 months, I broke the 25-second barrier in speed cards for the first time. Just a few weeks before creating the new system, I had been unable to memorise a deck in a minute at the XMT. So this progress is really exciting for me.
Memory-Sports: You are the most successful female memory athlete. But there are mostly men competing at memory championships. Do you have an idea why? And how can we attract more women?
Katie Kermode: There are some very strong female competitors in memory sport right now, but it’s true that the majority of athletes are men. It’s hard to say why this is. Sometimes women can be made to feel uncomfortable about pursuing activities that are seen as typically male or “geeky”. That’s a real shame. But I’ve always found the memory sports community to be a very inclusive environment and I hope we can continue making everyone feel accepted and valuable.
Memory-Sports: What is your favorite memory from the sport?
Katie Kermode: It’s difficult to choose one, but of course my first competition in 2008 was very special. I finally got to meet people like Ben Pridmore whose results I’d been looking at in amazement for some time. Everyone was really friendly. All the way home, I kept thinking “I’ve got a world record!”. It didn’t seem real. I had been through a difficult time that year, but I have very happy memories of that day. The two XMTs I’ve been to in San Diego were also fantastic. The competitions are so exciting, and I love having the opportunity to travel and spend time with the other competitors. For me, making friends from all over the world is one of the best things about memory sport.
Memory-Sports: You are very active in the Memory League. How does training these very short disciplines influence your skills?
Katie Kermode: I really enjoy training on the Memory League site. It’s so much fun to have the option of competing in a head-to-head match from home. Training these short disciplines is usually all I have time for, so this really suits me. I would love to play more matches, so whoever’s reading this – please send me a challenge some time!
Memory-Sports: How do you see the current situation of memory sports?
Katie Kermode: It’s a very exciting time, with the launch of the International Association of Memory (IAM) last year and the continuing success of the Memory League (formerly XMT). More and more competitions are springing up and we’re seeing new and highly skilled athletes from all over the world. Memory techniques seem to be garnering more attention and becoming more popular. So everything feels very positive right now. There’s a great atmosphere between the competitors, and it’s like being part of a family.
Memory-Sports: You are a temporary board member in the young IAM. How do you see your role in the future of it?
Katie Kermode: I will continue to contribute in whatever way I can. We have such an amazing community of memory athletes, organisers and arbiters. Between us, we have a lot of skills to contribute to taking the world of memory sports forward.
Memory-Sports: Thank you for your time.