Giving a good speech is a kind of paradoxical task.
On the one hand, nobody likes a reader. If you’re looking down at your notes, or worse, simply reading off the slideshow, you seem unengaged and unprepared.
On the other hand, the speech should feel natural. Good speakers sound as if the words just came to them in a conversation, even though they probably practiced it thousands of times.
For an interesting dissection of this, consider this analysis of how the comedian Louis C.K. tells a joke. The delivery is so casual that you feel like you’re overhearing him chatting with a friend in a bar. Yet the timing is so perfect you know that he did this dozens, if not hundreds, of times to get it right.
That’s the paradox: you need to memorize a speech, without seeming like you memorized it.
Fortunately, there’s a method for doing this, that is useful to learn.
Should You Even Try To Memorize?
Before I jump into the method, I want to address a first complaint—that memorizing a speech isn’t the thing you should do. That memorization will make your delivery robotic.
There’s some truth to this. Over-reliance on verbatim memorization can lead to an artificial sounding speech. However, I’ve learned that this is more a symptom of memorizing the speech, in the wrong way, than an issue with memorizing per se.
Good speakers aren’t entirely rigid. There should be some flexibility to your speech, particularly if there’s a chance you might get interrupted or need to change direction based on the reaction from your audience.
However, memorization, in some form or another, is essential. If the speech isn’t in memory, then it needs to be in your cue cards or slideshow, and then you’re back to reading. So most critiques of memorizing speeches are merely critiques of memorizing in a particularly inflexible, verbatim way. The way I’ll teach you avoids this problem.
The Step-by-Step Process to Memorize a Speech
1. Write Out the Speech
The first step is to write out your speech. There’s two ways you can do this. The first is simply to write it out exactly how you want to say it. If you’re comfortable as a writer, or you are trying to script out a presentation quite precisely, this can work.
However, most people are more familiar with talking than writing, so it’s often better to write out the speech as an outline, instead of as a full script.
2. Rehearse the Speech, With Your Script/Outline
Next, you want to try saying your speech out loud, with your script. At this stage, it’s okay to read it. You simply want to know how it sounds as a speech before you start the work of trying to memorize it.
Very often, when you start reading your speech aloud, you’ll recognize parts that need to change. This is a sculpting process, where you delete, add or reorder large chunks to make it sound better.
If you wrote out a complete script, you’ll need to do this several times to edit the script to make it sound more natural. If you’ve written a lot of speeches, this is easier. However, writing and speaking differ in many ways, so if you just go straight to memorizing a fully written speech you will probably sound a bit off.
If you only wrote an outline, this stage is where you end up creating the speech. It will probably take several times just to figure out what you want to say, so this process can sometimes be longer. The advantage of going from outline, as opposed to full script, is that you don’t have the residue of the written script influencing how you deliver it. If you need to appear more casual or spontaneous, this is especially helpful. Less so if you’re doing a formal presentation.
3. Memorize, Big to Small
The key to memorizing a speech is to memorize it hierarchically. You want to start with the broad chunks, then specific paragraphs, phrases, and finally, specific intonation and timing with words.
There’s two reasons to do it this way. The most obvious is that, aside from professional speakers, few people will hit the last stage and memorize the tiny details. Instead, the speech will be “good enough” when you’ve memorized the broad content of certain paragraphs, and are still loose enough to switch the delivery a little bit.
The second reason is that this gives you maximum practice at the more zoomed out level of your speech. This means you’ll have memorized this part the best, and will be able to fall back on it if you misremember a lower-level detail.
I once was presenting with a team, and one of our team members had the bad habit of skipping over small paragraphs or sections, like a record skipping over part of a song. For us it was a nuisance. But for the audience, he was skipping out parts of the logical sequence of the speech. Suddenly, our beautifully crafted presentation didn’t make any sense since we omitted a key part of the presentation. Memorizing hierarchically solves this problem by giving you the ability to remember the gist, even if you forget the parts.
4. Start with the Big Chunks
The first place to start is with the biggest chunks. These should be the logical and rhetorical content of your speech. The broad strokes of what you’re trying to talk about.
If you’re giving a sales presentation, this might be, “Describing the problem,” “What our product is,” and, “How to buy it.”
The first way to memorize this is simply to write out what these main points are on the page and then, covering them up, try to recall them. Spend a few minutes doing this and then try delivering your speech, focusing on the broad points, without worrying too much whether you get the exact delivery right.
5. Move to the Small Points
Once you’ve convinced yourself that the big chunks are 100% memorized (which shouldn’t take too long), then you want to move to the smaller points. These are not sentences, but they represent the meaning of what you want to say with them.
Depending on the speech there will be a lot more of these. I recommend expanding your bullets for your big chunks to represent each idea with one or two key words. This is considerably briefer than a full script, but it may actually be more detailed than your original outline—since you’ll have one point every sentence or two, whereas your original outline might have only included the big chunks.
Quiz yourself to memorize these points. I often like to tie them to the big chunks. So I could ask myself, “What are the points for — ‘Describing the problem’?” I would then proceed to recall from memory all the points I want to make and then check my list. Did I get them all right?
This can take a bit more work, so it’s useful to do a mixture of memorizing via this quizzing and actually practicing the speech. The reason to do some self-quizzing, instead of just rehearsing the speech, is that we’re trying to memorize the speech content first. Whereas, if you only rehearse the speech verbatim, it’s very easy to get stuck on memorizing the literal words of the speech but losing track of the broader structure.
Your goal here should be perfect recall of all the points. If I ask you, what are the points for chunk X of the speech, you should be able to flawlessly tell me what they all are. If you can’t, or you have to stop and think for more than two seconds, you don’t know it well enough. Keep quizzing yourself and you’ll have it memorized soon.
6. Memorize the Delivery
Now, hopefully, you’ve memorized the big chunks of your speech and all the points you need to make in each chunk. Since you’ve done it in this order, the overall structure of the speech should be deepest in your memory, followed by the points to be made and only finally some of the ways in which you are trying to say those points.
For many speeches, this is enough. You can simply go out and deliver your presentation, knowing that even if you change how you deliver it, the content will remain the same.
However, good speakers often go a step further. They rehearse it top-to-bottom a number of times so they can start making microscopic changes to the order of words, sentences, even timing and intonation.
One example of such a tweak. If I’m giving a speech, I might start to overuse a word too much. If I were giving this article as a speech, loosely, I might say the word “memorize” over and over again. In this phase of rehearsing a speech, I could make sure that sometimes I say “memorize” and sometimes I say “remember” and other times “rehearse” so as to give variety in my performance.
Jokes and comedy depend a lot on timing and delivery. So if you’re trying to write a speech that intends to be funny, this step is often difficult to skip since you need to have not only the right content, but the right delivery to make the speech work.
7. Deliver the Speech
Finally, you need to actually give the speech.
Although now we’re onto performance not rehearsal, it’s important here to remember to focus on the high-level chunks and points, not the words and delivery in your mind at this stage. Focus on what you want to say, and the “how” of your delivery will simply come out however you practiced it most before.
This step is important for a couple reasons.
First, it gives you maximal flexibility. If you get interrupted, someone asks a question or you flub and forget a word, you’ve remembered the meaning not the syntax. This means it’s easier to get back onto a logically coherent path, rather than trying to spit out sentences in the wrong order.
Second, it will feel the most natural. What makes someone feel natural in their delivery of a speech is that they are feeling the content of the speech as if it was coming to them right now. When you memorize the words, the semantics of the speech can get buried, and you can end up delivering it in a way you would never do in a conversation.
If you did do the sixth step, mastering the delivery, then whatever was best practiced will be the groove to which the record needle of your mind sticks to. Focusing on the content, not the delivery, is important here to seem natural. Think about what you want to say and the right way to say it will come out automatically because of your practice.
Why Bother With Memorizing a Speech?
I don’t memorize every presentation I have to give. If I know I have multiple takes (say I’m recording a video) very often what gets recorded are the takes I do as I’m trying to figure out what to say.
Similarly, if I’m delivering a longer talk then I may aim for improvising around the structure of the talk, without trying to master some element of the delivery. Longer speeches, obviously, take longer to memorize, so there may be somewhere when the cost-benefit of memorizing is no longer being reached.
However, often in your life you’ll have to deliver a speech where the stakes are high and there are no do-overs. In this instance, knowing how to properly memorize a speech, so you can say it exactly, without sounding robotic, is a useful skill to develop.
The nice thing about this process is that it goes in order of priority. So the question usually isn’t, “should I use this approach to memorize a speech?” but, “how far should I go for this particular speech?”. You may finish after early rehearsals, or memorizing the points, or even go so far as to perfect the timing of tiny nuances in your body language or tone of voice for particular words and phrases. This same process applies throughout.