To memorize the US Presidents may seem like an arduous task – 44 names in all (soon to be 45 but how can we forget that one) – but by using a simple technique, they can be learned quickly, in about 15 minutes. Not only is this a great way to learn the Presidents, it's also a great memory exercise, as well as a great way to pass the time while you wait in those monstrous voting lines today. There are a few ways to approach memorizing the 44 Presidents in order, but I’m going to keep it as simple as possible – by using the Linking Method. The Linking Method works by taking a sequence of pieces of information and linking them together by association. That means, taking the first item in a list and somehow associating it with the next, then taking that next item and associating it with the next, and so on. The idea is that as you move along, recalling the list, each item in the list leads you to the next item (because each is linked to the next).
There are 44 US Presidents each with a first, middle, and last name. We are going to focus on the last names first. Any extra information you might want to add afterwards can be done once the main linked list is set in your mind. Once that is set, you can add the full name, maybe even the Vice President who joined him, and even the years he served in office.
To start with the Linking Method, take each item in your list (in this case, a president's last name) and turn it into a mental picture. The picture should be based on something wild, bizarre, sexual, grotesque, or weird, because those are the things we remember best. Let's take the first president's name: “Washington.” We want to turn that name into something we can picture in our mind's eye. The most memorable way to do this is by transforming it into something it sounds like, say, a “washing machine.” A washing machine is easy to picture – the whirring sound of it makes, it's strong white color, the water swishing around inside, its clunky size. Plus, it's random. We are trying to memorize the Presidents here, why is there a washing machine in the mix? That's exactly the point; it makes our linked story memorable.
What we are going to do with the rest of the names of Presidents is turn them into similarly weird and random images and then link them all together into a vibrant and bizarre story (with each image linking to the next). The key word here is to “visualize,” not to try and memorize it. Try to “see” each image in your mind as vividly as possible, trying to use as many of your senses, and the memorization will follow. The following story might take a few read-throughs, but you should have the story down pat in less than 15 minutes. To transfer it over to your long-term memory, just review the story frequently at first, then less so over time.
Let's start with the list of images for each name, then we’ll weave it into a linked story:
- Washington – washing machine
- Adams – apples (as in Adam’s Apples)
- Jefferson – chef (chef-erson)
- Madison – maid (maid-ison)
- Monroe – man rowing
- Quincy Adams – squinting at a dam
- Jackson – Michael Jackson
- Van Buren – van burning
- Harrison – Harry Potter
- Tyler – necktie
- Polk – poking (the action of poking)
- Taylor - tail
- Fillmore – filmer (someone filming with a camera)
- Pierce – piercing (the action of piercing something)
- Buchanan – book-canon
- Lincoln – President Lincoln
- Johnson – toilet or john
- Grant – grant (college grant)
- Hayes – being hazed
- Garfield – Garfield the Cat
- Arthur – King Arthur (sword in the stone)
- Cleveland – Cleveland, Ohio
- Harrison – Harry Potter (again)
- Cleveland – Cleveland, Ohio (again)
- McKinley – Mt. McKinley (Denali)
- Roosevelt (Teddy) – teddy bear
- Taft - raft
- Wilson – Wilson volleyball
- Harding – hard
- Coolidge – acting cool
- Hoover – hoover or vacuum cleaner
- Roosevelt – rose
- Truman – truthful man
- Eisenhower – eye power
- JFK (Kennedy) – JFK airport
- LBJ (Johnson) – PB&J sandwich
- Nixon – knickers
- Ford – Ford car
- Carter - car
- Reagan – ray-gun
- Bush - bush
- Clinton – Clinton himself
- Bush Jr. – bush (again)
- Obama – bomb
Don’t worry if you don’t have all of those committed to memory yet, the story will help. Here goes:
Start by picturing a washing machine (Washington) washing a ton of bright-green Granny Smith apples (Adams). Along comes a chubby chef (Jefferson) who takes the apples out of the washing machine and puts on a maid’s uniform (Madison). He then gets inside of a rowing boat and starts rowing; he is a man rowing (Monroe). As the chef in a maid’s costume rows downstream, he sees something off in the distance. Squinting to see what it is, he sees a dam (Quincy Adams). On top of the dam is Michael Jackson (Jackson) doing the Moonwalk and grabbing his crotch. A burning van (Van Buren) comes out of nowhere and slams into him; blood splatters everywhere. Harry Potter (Harrison) suddenly shows up and by using his wand, he magically transforms the burning wreck into a necktie (Tyler), which he floats over to himself and ties around his neck. The necktie comes alive and starts poking (Polk) Harry Potter in the face. In fact, the necktie pokes him so hard that a tail (Taylor) pops out of his read-end. Being that this is all pretty weird, a filmer (Fillmore) begins to document the whole charade on film. But, by accident, the camera that the filmer is using happens to fire arrows instead of shoot film. The arrows pierce (Pierce) the back of a cannon lying off to the side. This triggers the cannon to launch a bunch of book-shaped cannonballs (Buchanan) BOOM, landing on President Lincoln’s (Lincoln) feet. He happens to be sitting across the way, on a toilet, or a john (Johnson). His son, he tells you randomly, just received a grant (Grant) to go to college and is joining a fraternity. He is in the process of being hazed (Hayes). Part of the hazing process involves shaving Garfield (Garfield) the Cat. As the cat is being shaved though, the cat pulls out a sword from a stone like King Arthur (Arthur) in his defense. The shaving stops immediately and the cat runs away, escaping as far away as he can to Cleveland (Cleveland), Ohio. Remember Harry Potter? Well, that’s the cat’s best friend. He gives Harry Potter (Harrison) a call and convinces him to join him in Cleveland (Cleveland, again). So he does. Once he arrives, they decide to go on an expedition to Alaska to climb Mt. McKinley (McKinley), the tallest mountain in America. While there, they run into big bears, Teddy Bears (Teddy Roosevelt), in fact. To avoid them, they jump into a raft (Taft) that takes them down the river off into the wilderness. Sadly, they get stranded on the raft for many days and go a bit insane, naming a volleyball they found, Wilson (Wilson), to keep them company. In the midst of their insanity, they find a CD player in the river that shockingly still works. Listening to it, they find that it is playing some hard (Harding) rock. They both start feeling all cool (Coolidge) while listening to it and decide to vacuum, or hoover (Hoover) the raft to make it clean. Suddenly the raft pops as they find themselves having gone through an over-grown set of rose (Roosevelt, different one) branches with thorns. They swim to shore where they find themselves even more stranded than before.
It is in these hard times, that they decide to become truthful men (Truman). Using their minds together and their eyes’ power (Eisenhower), they see a plane passing by high above. Making a rope out of branches and vines, they manage to latch onto the plane and hitch a ride to safety. The plane takes them all the way to JFK (JFK) Airport in NYC. Starving, they beg for some food and score some awesome PB&J sandwiches. Unfortunately the sandwiches don’t have peanut butter on them and instead have light butter, so it’s really an LB&J (LBJ). After feeding themselves, they take off their knickers (Nixon) and jump into a stranded Ford (Ford) car (Carter) sitting outside the terminal. Inside the car, they find a ray-gun (Reagan) attached to its roof. As they drive along, they fire the gun like crazy and even use it to mow down a big bush (Bush) in their path. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker named Clinton (Clinton), run through another bush (Bush), and then all explode into a fiery blaze as they run into a bomb (Obama) that happens to be laying in the middle of the street.
Tada! Easy as pie. I know it’s the dumbest story every, but re-read it and really try and visualize the story! It’s easy to remember and fun!
Another step you can take is to mark every 5th president in the list with a number so you can find which president was 25th, 19th, or 41st, etc, in a matter of seconds. To do this, go back over the story and add the following images/explanations:
- 1. Washington (1st president, on a dollar bill, easy)
- 5. Monroe (imagine there are 5 oars attached to the row-boat)
- 10. Tyler (he ties 10 neckties around his neck)
- 15. Buchanan (imagine precisely 15 book-shaped cannonballs being fired)
- 20. Garfield (he’s a fat cat, weighing 20 lbs.)
- 25. McKinley (the mountain is nearly 25,000 ft. above sea-level)
- 30. Coolidge (imagine they pop 30 pills of speed and that’s why they have the sudden urge to vacuum)
- 35. JFK (the minimum age to be president is 35; also, JFK was a very young president)
- 40. Reagan (from their shooting spree with the ray-gun, they cause 40 casualties)
With this numerically tagged system, people can ask you the 26th president, for example, and you’ll remember McKinley as the 25th and then move on to the next image (Teddy Bears = Teddy Roosevelt). If someone asks you 13th president, for example, you would first remember Tyler, the 10th president, and then move up three images in the story (neckties are poking Harry Potter in the face, he grows a tail, then a filmer starts filming the scene = Fillmore!), etc.
To add more detail to each president, simply take each image and give it more detail and links to the sub-data you wish to add. For example, the 43rd President is George W. Bush. We only memorized Bush in our story (we pictured a bush). Now, take that image of a bush and give it more detail. Maybe instead of it being just a plain old bush, picture George of the Jungle swinging from tree-to-tree inside it, and instead of swinging from a standard rope, picture him swinging from a W shaped rope. Voila. The amount of detail you can add is limitless and depends on how far you want to take it.
As you get more comfortable with the story and its details, it will eventually become natural for you to recall and you might not even need the story from that point forward. This technique is a way to get the information in your head quickly.
Note: There is another technique that is a bit more powerful than this one called the Journey Method. I don’t describe it here because I believe the technique described above is the fastest way to memorize the Presidents without much prep.