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The trick to public speaking is to stop memorizing
There you are, standing in front of a group of people in the middle of your high-stakes presentation, at a loss for what to say next. It’s awful, excruciating, painful, right?
If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. Public speaking is one of the top fears in the US , and forgetting what to say during a presentation is the most frequent one I hear from my MBA students and coaching clients alike.
But here’s the thing: The most logical sounding coping mechanism you may be tempted to employ to help you avoid this scenario—i.e., memorizing your presentation—can make you more likely to forget it.
This is partly because by committing your script to memory, you establish one “right” way to communicate your content.
You limit yourself to one specific target to hit. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.
If you stray from the script, perhaps rearrange a point or two, or have to circle back to include a point you initially forgot, the memorizing function in your brain identifies an error. Panic sets in.
When you do this, you experience a heightened awareness to how you sound. This increases the likelihood that you will perceive yourself as making a mistake if you say a sentence or a phrase differently—even if it’s not actually wrong.
I do believe there is value in writing out your narrative beforehand, especially if you need to include specific, precise wording such as technical, legal, or scientific terms. But by memorizing a presentation by rote, you create an additional cognitive burden to add to public speaking and widen your margins for error.
Sticking to a memorized script also causes you to be less connected and engaging, as it reduces the bandwidth you have to adjust and adapt to your audience.
So how do you steer clear of rote memorization while ensuring your speech doesn’t come out as a rambling, unorganized mess?
The key to not blanking out is to first create a comprehensive outline, composed of the major delivery points, in the order that you want to present them.
Having a clear structure to your presentation is critical. Think of it like a map for both you and your audience.
At least three types of outlines can help you here:
- There’s the traditional outline, where you create an indented, hierarchical listing of your points and provide key phrases or wording.
- Or you can choose a question-based outline, in which you list questions that spark specific answers in the order you intend to cover your content.
- For more visual people, there’s also the Illustrated or picture-based outline, for which you can graphically map out your ideas using icons, pictures, and words.
Stand and deliver
Being comfortable in your body plays a big role in how you speak, and in how you remember things . Research has shown that hearing your own voice while using relevant, appropriate gestures from a standing posture improves later recall . So when you practice, stand up, then speak. I encourage web and telephone presenters to stand when practicing, even if they plan to present sitting at a desk, in front of a web cam.
For another technique, try recording yourself and then playing the recording back, listening to your own voice while you stand and walk around.
Be a visionary
Close your eyes and envision your presentation unfolding in a familiar space, such as your home or a favorite hiking path of yours.
As you walk through your presentation, imagine yourself placing different key ideas in specific locations along your imaginary route. Perhaps your catchy introductory line is paired with your front door. Or, the surprising results of a study you’re presenting coincide with that bend in the trail that leads to your favorite sunset view.
By practicing your presentation while imagining moving along your path, you are creating visual aids and signals to more easily recall your points.
Do not remain calm
There’s an obvious reason why most of us feel compelled to memorize: Public speaking makes us nervous. The twist is that when we are nervous and anxious, we are often worse at remembering. And the more you rely on a memorized script or speech, the less likely you are to recall it in your moment of need.
Taking deep breaths and trying to calm down in the moment can help manage speaking anxiety, but it also requires a lot of cognitive effort. It can potentially lead to losing focus.
Research shows that being excited prior to a nerve-wracking task (which again, public speaking is for many of us) can actually enhance performance and confidence.
Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks conducted a number of studies in which she found people who focused on being excited felt and did better on tasks they were set to complete, from solving challenging math problems to singing karaoke. Brooks believes that if we reframe anxiety as excitement, we can trick ourselves into avoiding the negative effects of nervousness.
To flip your inner anxiety dialogue to excitement, you can try some tricks such as identifying something of value you learned, which you now get to share with your audience.
It can also help to identify some positive outcomes that may result from your presentation, such as procuring funding for a project, or gaining visibility for a job promotion. Visualize yourself being excited about giving your presentation can also help. Starting a day or two before speaking, take three to five minutes in your schedule to close your eyes and imagine your most engaged, excited self, and how you come off when you’re most confident.
By developing a mechanism to help you recall the major points of your presentation, you’re creating a framework that is dynamic and elastic. You can easily take in stride any unplanned turn of events, whether someone asks an unexpected question or a slide projector malfunctions.
So the next time you have a big presentation coming up, don’t forget to remember—but feel free to forget memorizing.
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Why Memorizing Your Speech is Bad
Memorizing Speeches is a Big No-No
When we emphasize the importance of practicing to attendees of our Presentation Skills Training workshops , we hear the same question come up over and over: “What’s the best way to memorize my speech?” And our answer never changes: “You don’t.”
There are a number of reasons why we tell people memorizing speeches is a really bad idea and they all boil down to the same basic issue: Memorized presentations sound rehearsed.
The goal of any presentation is to be engaging . You want the audience to listen to what you’re saying and take action. How engaging and motivating do you consider a speaker who reads his speech word-for-word? Do these types of presentations leave you feeling excited? Inspired? Of course they don’t. And a rehearsed presentation doesn’t either.
Learn Public Speaking Skills Instead
Memorizing speeches often results in a presentation has absolutely no personality. How can a speaker, so focused on remembering the words, truly engage with the audience? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather forget a hundred words than to disengage my audience. Once they’re gone, it’s very hard to get them back (and downright impossible when the only thing you have to say are the words you’ve memorized).
And memorized speeches don’t have the passionate or authentic delivery of a presentation given by someone who has presentation skills. The charismatic speakers you’ve had the pleasure of listening to? They didn’t memorize their presentations—they implemented expert presentation skills.
Here’s another big problem with trying to memorize speeches: The longer they are, the harder they are to memorize, and the more likely you’ll end up forgetting your speech. So the very reason you’ve memorized your presentation—so that you wouldn’t forget something—will end up be its undoing!
Memorization Versus Practice
So here’s what it boils down to: Memorizing your presentation is bad, but rehearsing is good. And while the more you practice the more you’ll find there are words and phrases you memorize because you’ve repeated them over and over, the two are not the same. Practice is about rehearsing how you will deliver your content: specific words you’ll use, the way you’ll say them, when you’ll pause, the gestures you’ll make; memorizing is about committing information to memory so you may recall it later. It would make sense to memorize a statistic to use in your presentation. It does not make sense to try to memorize a speech word-for-word.
If you must memorizing something, memorize only your opening and closing. These are the critical bookends that hold your presentation together, so you want to make sure the words you choose to reel your audience in and send them away with are spot on. The rest of your presentation should be guided only by bullet points that allow you to create a dialogue with your audience that they feel they’re a part of.
Public Speaking Isn’t Perfect
If the reason you want to memorize your speech is so that you won’t forget something, chances are pretty good you’ll end up doing exactly that. Plus it will be obvious to the audience that you’ve forgotten something because suddenly you’ll be at a complete loss for words. By developing strong business presentation skills instead, you’ll have the confidence of knowing that when a mistake happens in your presentation, you can handle it. (And no one but you will ever know.)
Have you ever memorized a speech and it went wrong? Share what happened in the comment section below and if this article has helped you – share it with your professional circle as well!
I just try to use bullet points to keep me on track. Everytime I try to memorize my presentation I end up bombing because I can’t remember that word I wanted to use.
Makes total sense. Thanks for another great blog!
Practice, practice and practice. If you do it enough when the time comes it just feels right.
How many of us have been taught to memorize what we want to say? This makes so much more sense.
I was always under the impression reading was bad and memorizing was good. This format makes so much more sense.
Memorizing has a lot of weak spot like sounding boring and fake, but the biggest issue I think is that if you forget a word can’t continue or get nervous, since you need that word what remembar waht is next. Its better to understand your topic and explain from there, only possible with a lot of practice.
today I had a public speech audition. But the sorrow is that I got stuck on a point and couldn’t cotinue so longer.This is because I memorised them all….
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Don’t Just Memorize Your Next Presentation — Know It Cold
- Sabina Nawaz
Learn it upside-down and backwards.
Knowing a script or presentation cold means taking the time to craft the words and sequence of what you plan to say, and then rehearsing them until you could recite them backwards if asked. It’s a more effective approach to public speaking than simple memorization or “winging it” because you plan not just the words but the actions and transitions between points, so it becomes one fluid motion for you, all the while allowing time for adjusting or improvising during the speech itself.
To learn your script cold, first, decide how you will craft your script, whether it’s noting key talking points or writing down every line and detail. Next, create natural sections and learn them individually, including transitions. Then, learn your script over time and rehearse. Finally, have a plan for forgetfulness, which can include acknowledging that you need to reference your notes.
The three judges beamed at me. Buoyed by their support, I anticipated winning this college elocution competition. I nailed the first verse of my chosen poem, but might as well have been under general anesthesia when trying to remember a single word of the second verse. Now the judges’ encouraging smiles only roiled my rising panic. Finally, the timer buzzed, ending my turn on stage and initiating a two-decade fear of memorization.
- Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach , leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDx and has written for FastCompany.com , Inc.com , and Forbes.com , in addition to HBR.org. Follow her on Twitter .
Module 6: Organizing and Outlining Your Speech
Methods of speech delivery, learning objectives.
Identify the four types of speech delivery methods and when to use them.
There are four basic methods of speech delivery: manuscript, memorized, impromptu, and extemporaneous. We’ll look at each method and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.
A manuscript page from President George W. Bush’s address to the nation on the day of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
A manuscript speech is when the speaker writes down every word they will speak during the speech. When they deliver the speech, they have each word planned and in front of them on the page, much like a newscaster who reads from a teleprompter.
The advantage of using a manuscript is that the speaker has access to every word they’ve prepared in advance. There is no guesswork or memorization needed. This method comforts some speakers’ nerves as they don’t have to worry about that moment where they might freeze and forget what they’ve planned to say. They also are able to make exact quotes from their source material.
When the exact wording of an idea is crucial, speakers often read from a manuscript, for instance in communicating public statements from a company.
However, the disadvantage with a manuscript is that the speakers have MANY words in front of them on the page. This prohibits one of the most important aspects of delivery, eye contact. When many words are on the page, the speakers will find themselves looking down at those words more frequently because they will need the help. If they do look up at the audience, they often cannot find their place when the eye returns to the page. Also, when nerves come into play, speakers with manuscripts often default to reading from the page and forget that they are not making eye contact or engaging their audience. Therefore, manuscript is a very difficult delivery method and not ideal. Above all, the speakers should remember to rehearse with the script so that they practice looking up often.
Public Speaking in History
The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, owed in large part to a momentary error made by an East German government spokesperson. At a live press conference, Günter Schabowski tried to explain new rules relaxing East Germany’s severe travel restrictions. A reporter asked, “when do these new rules go into effect?” Visibly flustered, Schabowski said, “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.” In fact, the new visa application procedure was supposed to begin the following day, and with a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. Instead, thousands of East Berliners arrived within minutes at the border crossings, demanding to pass through immediately. The rest is history.
The outcome of this particular public-relations blunder was welcomed by the vast majority of East and West German citizens, and hastened the collapse of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. It’s probably good, then, that Schabowski ran this particular press conference extemporaneously, rather than reading from a manuscript.
You can view the transcript for “The mistake that toppled the Berlin Wall” here (opens in new window) .
A memorized speech is also fully prepared in advance and one in which the speaker does not use any notes. In the case of an occasion speech like a quick toast, a brief dedication, or a short eulogy, word-for-word memorization might make sense. Usually, though, it doesn’t involve committing each and every word to memory, Memorizing a speech isn’t like memorizing a poem where you need to remember every word exactly as written. Don’t memorize a manuscript! Work with your outline instead. Practice with the outline until you can recall the content and order of your main points without effort. Then it’s just a matter of practicing until you’re able to elaborate on your key points in a natural and seamless manner. Ideally, a memorized speech will sound like an off-the-cuff statement by someone who is a really eloquent speaker and an exceptionally organized thinker!
The advantage of a memorized speech is that the speaker can fully face their audience and make lots of eye contact. The problem with a memorized speech is that speakers may get nervous and forget the parts they’ve memorized. Without any notes to lean on, the speaker may hesitate and leave lots of dead air in the room while trying to recall what was planned. Sometimes, the speaker can’t remember or find his or her place in the speech and are forced to go get the notes or go back to the PowerPoint in some capacity to try to trigger his or her memory. This can be an embarrassing and uncomfortable moment for the speaker and the audience, and is a moment which could be easily avoided by using a different speaking method.
How to: memorize a speech
There are lots of tips out there about how to memorize speeches. Here’s one that loosely follows an ancient memorization strategy called the method of loci or “memory palace,” which uses visualizations of familiar spatial environments in order to enhance the recall of information.
You can view the transcript for “How to Memorize a Speech” here (opens in new window) .
An impromptu speech is one for which there is little to no preparation. There is often not a warning even that the person may be asked to speak. For example, your speech teacher may ask you to deliver a speech on your worst pet peeve. You may or may not be given a few minutes to organize your thoughts. What should you do? DO NOT PANIC. Even under pressure, you can create a basic speech that follows the formula of an introduction, body, and conclusion. If you have a few minutes, jot down some notes that fit into each part of the speech. (In fact, the phrase “speaking off the cuff,” which means speaking without preparation, probably refers to the idea that one would jot a few notes on one’s shirt cuff before speaking impromptu.)  ) An introduction should include an attention getter, introduction of the topic, speaker credibility, and forecasting of main points. The body should have two or three main points. The conclusion should have a summary, call to action, and final thought. If you can organize your thoughts into those three parts, you will sound like a polished speaker. Even if you only hit two of them, it will still help you to think about the speech in those parts. For example, if a speech is being given on a pet peeve of chewed gum being left under desks in classrooms, it might be organized like this.
- Introduction : Speaker chews gum loudly and then puts it under a desk (attention getter, demonstration). Speaker introduces themselves and the topic and why they’re qualified to speak on it (topic introduction and credibility). “I’m Katie Smith and I’ve been a student at this school for three years and witnessed this gum problem the entire time.”
- Body : Speaker states three main points of why we shouldn’t leave gum on desks: it’s rude, it makes custodians have to work harder, it affects the next student who gets nastiness on their seat (forecast of order). Speaker then discusses those three points
- Conclusion : Speaker summarizes those three points (summary, part 1 of conclusion), calls on the audience to pledge to never do this again (call to action), and gives a quote from Michael Jordan about respecting property (final thought).
While an impromptu speech can be challenging, the advantage is that it can also be thrilling as the speaker thinks off the cuff and says what they’re most passionate about in the moment. A speaker should not be afraid to use notes during an impromptu speech if they were given any time to organize their thoughts.
The disadvantage is that there is no time for preparation, so finding research to support claims such as quotes or facts cannot be included. The lack of preparation makes some speakers more nervous and they may struggle to engage the audience due to their nerves.
The last method of delivery we’ll look at is extemporaneous. When speaking extemporaneously, speakers prepare some notes in advance that help trigger their memory of what they planned to say. These notes are often placed on notecards. A 4”x6” notecard or 5”x7” size card works well. This size of notecards can be purchased at any office supply store. Speakers should determine what needs to go on each card by reading through their speech notes and giving themselves phrases to say out loud. These notes are not full sentences, but help the speakers, who turn them into a full sentence when spoken aloud. Note that if a quote is being used, listing that quote verbatim is fine.
The advantage of extemporaneous speaking is that the speakers are able to speak in a more conversational tone by letting the cards guide them, but not dictate every word they say. This method allows for the speakers to make more eye contact with the audience. The shorter note forms also prevent speakers from getting lost in their words. Numbering these cards also helps if one gets out of order. Also, these notes are not ones the teacher sees or collects. While you may be required to turn in your speech outline, your extemporaneous notecards are not seen by anyone but you. Therefore, you can also write yourself notes to speak up, slow down, emphasize a point, go to the next slide, etc.
The disadvantage to extemporaneous is the speakers may forget what else was planned to say or find a card to be out of order. This problem can be avoided through rehearsal and double-checking the note order before speaking.
Many speakers consider the extemporaneous method to be the ideal speaking method because it allows them to be prepared, keeps the audience engaged, and makes the speakers more natural in their delivery. In your public speaking class, most of your speeches will probably be delivered extemporaneously.
- As per the Oxford English Dictionary' s entry for "Off the Cuff." See an extensive discussion at Mark Liberman's Language Log here: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4130 ↵
- Method of loci definition. Provided by : Wikipedia. Located at : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci . License : CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
- The mistake that toppled the Berlin Wall. Provided by : Vox. Located at : https://youtu.be/Mn4VDwaV-oo . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License
- How to Memorize a Speech. Authored by : Memorize Academy. Located at : https://youtu.be/rvBw__VNrsc . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License
- Address to the Nation. Provided by : U.S. National Archives. Located at : https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2011/09/06/911-an-address-to-the-nation/ . License : Public Domain: No Known Copyright
- Methods of Speech Delivery. Authored by : Misti Wills with Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution