Do. Not. Memorize It. I’m serious. My colleague Neela describes the phenomenon of watching someone deliver a speech from rote memory as being like they are reading it from a ticker tape right in front of their eyes—they aren’t connecting with the audience because their brain space and focus are all taken up with remembering the speech word for word.
I can hear you now: “But that’s the only way I can be sure I won’t forget anything!” “But lots of great speakers memorize!”
Let’s address these comments one at a time. First, the ever popular: “But that’s the only way I can be sure I won’t forget anything!” I have a couple of points to make about this. A.) Just because you don’t know another way doesn’t mean there’s not one. I’ll teach you a better way to be sure that you cover everything you need to in your presentation. B.) It doesn’t matter if you forget something, unless you’re giving CPR instructions to someone who is simultaneously using them. C.) The intention of your speech should not be “to make sure I don’t forget anything.”
Next! “But lots of great speakers memorize!” I’m not so sure about that. Lots of very practiced speakers use teleprompters, and are really good at it. Those speakers (think President Obama) also have writers who do a spectacular job of writing in the voice of the person who will be speaking—also, Obama edits and rewrites his speeches so that he can deliver them authentically. People like this—who speak frequently and on a huge scale—are in a different category. Their job and lifestyle support an immense amount of preparation and deliberate practice. In other words, they do their speeches so often that they move through “memorized” as our friend Neela describes it, and they come out on the other side, where they truly inhabit the content. In this way, they’re like actors. I had a client argue with me once that she should be allowed to memorize her speech “since that’s what actors do.” I asked her, “Are you an actor?” “No,” she said, “I’m an accountant.”
For most people, memorizing a speech word for word is going to result in a speech that comes off as rote and robotic to the audience. The speaker has dedicated all her prep time to memorization instead of working specifically on what impact she wants to have on her audience. This is misplaced time and energy.
One other problem with memorized speeches is that the people who write and deliver them are often at the mercy of their more “writerly” phrases and structures. Most people don’t write a presentation as if they are actually going to say it out loud; they write it as though it’s going to be read. So when it comes time to say it out loud, it sounds strange and stilted. How do we avoid that? Practice out loud. Note what sentences and phrases sound awkward. They may have been fine on the page, but they aren’t going to translate to the stage.
If you insist on memorizing, remember you’re going to have to put about twice or three times the amount of time into preparing. This is because once you’ve memorized it, the real work begins—making the presentation seem natural, and connecting with your audience.