Should you memorize your speech? Is it okay to use notes?
Proponents of memorization rightly assert that it’s difficult to perform well and read a script at the same time. Especially in these days of so much on-screen presentation, we see too many eyes wandering away from the camera—away from the audience—as speakers read from a script. Even with a teleprompter that places the script directly in front of the lens, recitation is a weak substitute for presentation.
It takes time, effort, and concentration to memorize your speech. And if you’re nervous to begin with, worrying about blowing a line will likely cause you to … well … blow a line.
Winston Churchill was speaking in 1904 in a debate in the House of Commons. He had notes and had considered for days exactly what he wanted to say. His speech was prepared word for word, and he had practiced it diligently. After speaking for forty-five minutes, he reached the last sentence, for which his note was, “And it rests with those who…”
His memory failed! He could not recall who this important matter rested with. He couldn’t skip or slur over the sentence because it was the last one.
He repeated, “And it rests with those who….” but no words came.
The House seemed puzzled. He repeated the words a third time, but could get no further. The effort of trying to remember made it impossible to produce anything else.
After a long and uncomfortable pause, the House became sympathetic and cheered encouragingly.
Still he stood obstinately searching for the final, missing phrase.
After a few minutes, he apologized and sat down. Some thought he had had a stroke.
From that day forward, Winston Churchill always spoke with carefully annotated notes. He went on to become one of the world’s most famous orators.
Should you memorize your speech or read it? If you memorize anything, memorize a powerful beginning and a strong ending. A “hook” at the beginning of the presentation is essential. A powerful lesson or eloquent call to action at the end will prime your audience for transformation. Between those two points, you have a lot more latitude to improvise or even make mistakes.
In casual conversation, we’re able to speak off-the-cuff without nervousness or unacceptable stumbling. If you’re comfortable and familiar with the principal points and stories you want to share, write down a single word or phrase on an index card to remind you of the content and the order. Many professional speakers collect hours of short stories to build speeches with. When a client wants a half-hour presentation on marketing or a sixty-minute presentation on customer engagement, the speaker reaches into their “jewelry box” and retrieves the “beads” that fit the style and length of the client’s “string.” When a client asks me for a storytelling presentation, I can tell the “Cruise Ship Story,” the “Trust Your Compass” story, the “Running Aground” story, and others. I customize the order of the stories and tailor the lessons of each to the outcomes the client wants to produce for the audience. At my feet or on my screen is a simple outline that keeps my presentation “on the rails.”
When coaching a contestant in the World Championship of Public Speaking, we drilled deep into every word, every pause, and every gesture. My client spent many hours working from the script, but instead of memorizing the words, he internalized the theatrical aspects of the performance—the pauses, hand gestures, proximity to the camera, and vocal dynamics. Though this is technically more information to learn, he began to conceptualize each section of the speech—each line—each emphasized word—as a tiny performance designed to have a particular effect on the audience. Here’s where we tell the dark story. Here’s where we make them think it’s going to get worse and then unleash the light, humorous, and unexpected turnaround. Here’s where you’re the narrator. Here’s where you play a character. Words are just words, but when you can anticipate how the audience is going to respond, how you’ll connect with them, play with them, and inspire them, memorization comes naturally.
But with the stakes being high, we created a simple, one-page outline that labeled each section of the speech and taped it under the camera so it would be there if needed.
In lieu of rote memorization, try rehearsing each section of your speech—each story— as if you were telling it at a campfire. As you practice, you’ll find yourself repeating phrases and gag-lines. Tell a story ten times and it will “settle” into a consistent form. Tell it fifty times and you’ll find you tell it pretty much the same way each time without having to formally memorize it.
Memorizing an outline is much easier than memorizing your speech. And probably, you “memorized” information that you have now completely forgotten so you could pass school tests. Learning something is not the same as memorizing it. The better you know your content and message, the less worried you’ll be about getting the words perfect. But even when you know your speech like you know your own name, it was one of the greatest speakers of all time who said, “Never trust your memory without your manuscript.”