Memorizing Your Speech . . . Should You or Shouldn’t You?

May 17, 2021 by  

Memorizing your speech . . . should you or shouldn’t you? Here is the surprising truth about when memorization helps you nail a presentation!

What is the difference between a TED Talk and a phone call from a telemarketer?
Among other markers of quality and performance, it is this: The telemarketer usually sounds like he or she is reading from a script.  The TED speech? Well, that talk is scripted out too only the TED speaker doesn’t make it sound that way.
A key element to any successful speech is the focus.

Look into the question of whether you should memorize your speech and presentation  and virtually all of the advice you will find is the same: you shouldn’t do it. But I am not so sure. To be fair, I have said the same thing over the years to my speech coaching clients. Lately, though, I have been revisiting this matter in my mind and re-examining my own assumptions. Blame it, in part, on the fact that I am an actor.
Any actor whether performing on a stage, in a film, recording an audiobook or in a gig making sales calls prides himself or herself on the fact that it mustn’t sound like someone reading. Add to that thought this question: which type of spoken performances are generally the most dramatic, the most memorable, and the most emotionally powerful? Aside from a remarkable political speech or one addressing a historic moment, what we are talking about here is acting.

Do actors memorize their lines?  You know they do!  But their craft requires that they do it engagingly and in a way that doesn’t sound canned. So, to end this chain of logic: The problem with memorizing a speech isn’t the act of memorization. It is simply a bad performance in conveying the written material that makes it all obvious. There, as Hamlet said, is the rub.  In addition, if you get nervous, you will likely forget what you memorized and that certainly won’t be good.  Better to really know what you want to say.

As In All Public Speaking, the Key Is Performance
Again, think of actors: The whole point of a dramatic performance is to know the part line-by-line but to make it sound spontaneous and real. It is called “the illusion of the first time.” You, too, as a speaker should be giving your audience the same impression. Listeners the people who share your interest or dedication to the topic need to hear your thinking as you develop your argument, as your personality connects to what you are saying. As British director John Barton wrote, referring to acting performances, you should invent the phrase as you say it.

Obviously reading a script either literally doing so with a manuscript, or performing that action in your head isn’t going to lend your delivery that element of spontaneity and honesty. So should you just give yourself bullet points and trust that you will be able to phrase everything eloquently at the right moment?

Isn’t at least one solution to this challenge that you can memorize exactly what you want to say, and then work on making it sound natural and fresh? Believe me, you don’t have to be an actor to do this. If you learn how to develop exceptional presentation skills, you can make it happen.

So . . . Should You or Shouldn’t You?
One reason my thinking has been evolving on this issue is the fact that I have recently become a keynote speaker. When the speakers’ bureau I now work with asked me to kick off their new speakers series, I faced the issue I am discussing here. Motivational speakers don’t speak from notes. To deliver an impactful address, in precisely the amount of time a meeting or conference calls for, they need to shape their talk, know it cold, and be able to reproduce it time and time again. To do that, they memorize, as I now do my keynote speeches.

How about you? As in all things concerned with public speaking, the answer to the “memorize or not” question is contingent and situational. That is, the key considerations are the type of presentation you are giving, and whether you and your audience would be best served by a fully memorized and dynamically delivered speech. If necessity is the mother of your personal inventiveness and leads you to add this dimension to your speaking repertoire, don’t necessarily be cowed by the conventional advice.

In the end, the reason I usually do not recommend memorizing is because when one is nervous, as one often is when doing a presentation, you will likely forget what you memorized. That is why it is actually better to know your material backwards and forwards, inside out and in your sleep. PowerPoint or a similar tool is just that, a tool and serves two basic purposes, it reinforces your key points and reminds you, the speaker of the key points you want to elaborate upon. However, everything you are going to share with your audience about those keywords or short phrases should NOT be on your slides. Your audience can read your slide faster than you can speak it so better to have very few words on your slides. Besides, most people are not verbal learners, they are visual or hands-on learners. So the more interactive you can make your session and the more use of pictures or graphics, the more likely your audience will remember more of what you have told them.

Do remember to have fun, because you set the tone for the room and if you are nervous and anxious you will make your audience feel that way. However, if you are relaxed, calm and passionate about your material you have better chance of successfully engaging your audience and making sure they have fun as well.