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Should You Memorize Your Speech?

by John Kinde


To memorize or not. That is the question.

Some speakers insist on scripting every speech and delivering it the same, word-for-word, every time it's delivered. Many script their specific gestures and movement. In fact, many excellent coaches suggest doing exactly that; put the speech on paper and memorize it.

Other speakers prefer to be totally in the moment. They look for inspiration to move them in their selection of words and physical movement choices. They would never consider totally memorizing a scripted speech.

I advocate something in the middle. I feel both approaches have their strengths and both approaches can, and should be, woven into every speech you give.

The real future of speaking, and the direction in which the very best speakers are moving, is a natural and connected style of delivery. Yet to be at the top of your game on the platform, this "natural" delivery is actually a result of planning, training, coaching and practice.

It's like my tip for being spontaneous on the platform...you prepare to be spontaneous! You won't arrive at a powerful, connected style just by winging it.

Unfortunately, memorization can work against a good connected style.

The result, when most people memorize a speech, is a speaker stepping on the platform and switching on the autopilot. It's like they push a button and a robotic speaker begins to recite the memorized speech.

The speech is accentuated with the precise gestures of an automaton. The speech is delivered in the exact same manner that it would be if the room had no audience.

Memorization sets landmines in a speech...you become a slave to the text

Memorization also sets landmines in a speech. A memorized speech usually sets the expectation that it will be delivered exactly the same way each time. Miss a word or phrase and it trips you up.

And heaven forbid that you should omit a major point! You become a slave to the text. That's why it's often associated with robotic delivery. The speaker is more tuned into the script that he or she is tuned into the audience.

I'm really not against memorization. In fact most of a typical speech I deliver is memorized. What I don't do is write out the speech word for word. Not on paper anyway. In a sense I write it out "in my head" and I put it on tape and play it back.

I put in considerable time memorizing, I just don't write a manuscript. I'm going to be speaking out-of-my head, that's where I want the memory work engraved. I'm not going to be reading the speech.

Certain parts of the speech should be more precisely memorized. You try to deliver the memorized parts exactly the same each time, but don't freeze if you deviate a bit. You don't want to be a prisoner of a script.

The areas that should be memorized are:

- Your opening. It sets the stage and should be well word-smithed and rehearsed. One of the reasons there are many fans of memorization is that there is only one best way of saying something. And you need to spend time determining what that best phrasing is and memorize it as best you can.

- Your humor, especially the punchline. The setup is very important; the punchline is critical. Mess up the words and you may kill the laughs.

- Your transitions. This is an area where I spend most of my rehearsal time. Great transitions are critical to the flow and organization of your talk. They help provide the roadmap which will tie the entire talk together for your listeners.

- Your idea outline. You should have your key-point outline memorized to the point where you can recite it, item for item, just as if you were reading it from a note card. This is the only thing I actually write on paper.

- Your closing. Your call to action is probably the most important part of the talk. It should be precisely crafted for maximum impact.

So it sounds like I'm recommending memorizing almost the entire talk? Well, not exactly.

I'm going to be speaking out-of-my head; that's where I want the memory work engraved.

In one of my one-hour talks I consider 75% of it NOT memorized. These are the vignettes, the stories, the points I tell to carry my message to the audience. These important parts of the talk are delivered in nearly the same words and gestures every time. But these segments of my talk have never been scripted or put on paper. I write these key segments only in my mind. And they are slightly different each time I give them.

I try to be in the moment, connected with the audience, and at the same time relive the experience of the story as I tell it. If my vignettes were totally written and memorized, I wouldn't be present...I'd be in the script and not in the room.

When I rehearse before a presentation, I mentally review my idea outline several times, committing the precise flow of my talk to memory. I practice my opening and my closing. I review my humor to make sure the punchlines are fresh in my memory. And I actually practice my transitions which will move me from one vignette to another, word for word.

I rarely rehearse out loud. Ninety-five percent of my rehearsals are mental and use visualization. I occasionally rehearse contest speeches out loud to get a good feel for timing.

My vignettes, I don't practice. I know them. They're my stories. I've lived them. Although that's not complete accurate. I practiced them when I originally developed them. And now the only time I practice the vignettes is when I actually deliver them before a live audience.

Being in the moment, delivering the vignettes gives a freshness to them and frequently I find a new, fun or memorable way of expressing a thought. I capture new lines in my post-speech critique. Normally I present my key vignettes frequently enough that this works for me. If I do bring out a vignette which I haven't presented for quite some time, I do rehearse it to refresh my memory.

OK, so I do memorize almost my entire talk. I just don't write it down. Certain parts of the talk I refresh my memorization before taking the platform. The rest of the talk segments, although set to memory in the original development phase, are presented in a more extemporaneous fashion.

I let the movement and gestures come organically from the content and the connection with the audience. And I drive my audience connection with conversational eye contact.

A couple of quick tips on rehearsal and memorization. When you practice your speech...practice making mistakes. If you stumble over a word in your opening, don't just start over. Work through it. Practice recovering from your mistakes. That's what you'll have to do on the platform. For some ideas on memory techniques, get a copy of The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne. It's a classic.

Memorize or not? Yes and no. My speeches are mostly memorized...they're just not written on paper. And although I want to use the ideal words, I don't handcuff myself to any specific words. If it doesn't come out exactly as I planned it, I don't get stressed.

Experiment to see what fits your style. And select a balance which is right for you and which does not get between you, your audience and your message.

2006 Copyright by John Kinde

John Kinde provides Keynote Programs on humor, teambuilding and customer service. He also presents workshops and coaching on humor, presentation skills, and improve skills for business. John is the author of a series of audio and video learning tapes. Read his humor skills articles on http://www.HumorPower.com




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Speaking With Confidence: How to Manage the Butterflies
A Short Guide to Effective Public Speaking
A Fate Worse Than Death: Tips To Take the Terror Out of Giving Presentations
How to Find Ideas for Articles and Speeches
Romancing Your Audience
Debunking the 55%, 38%, 7% Rule
Romancing the Audience
10 Worst Tips To Give Someone Who Has To Speak In Public
Get Rid of Stagefright Over Your Lunch Hour
How Do You Sound to Others? -- by Nido Qubein
Five Effective Ways to Make Your Body Speak

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