Memorize a speech in 6 steps

Have you ever wondered how TED speakers memorize their talks? This step-by-step process will have you fluidly delivering your next presentation—just like the pros.

In “What memorizing a TED talk did to my brain,” Alexis Madrigal, a TED 2015 speaker, describes what has been so unusual—and compelling—about TED conferences:

The strangest thing about TED, which is running this week in Vancouver, British Columbia, is not the four-figure price tag or earnest, almost cultish following. It’s that almost everyone on stage has memorized their lines. At most conferences, you get a mix of people reading from PowerPoint decks, using teleprompters, or simply ad-libbing around loose outlines. But not at TED. Here, memory reigns.

In his article, Madrigal provides a useful description of his memorization process and notes something that good coaches know: Practice and memorization will make your talk better.

From the article:

All the live practice began to reshape the talk itself. Every difficult phrasing got changed or cut. Other people’s direct quotes were the hardest to memorize, so I cut some of those, too. At one point, I had to recite a series of strange computer-generated phrases, which I would not recommend putting in your memorized talk. Without semantic meaning, strings of words are so, so hard to remember.

Quotes and jokes—which rely on disrupting a pattern rather than a pattern you can memorize—are both on my list of hard-to-memorize items.

Can you master memorization?

It’s a wonderful goal for speakers, and an effective way to impress any audience. Plus, memorized speeches don’t have to sound rote.

Here are some of my tips for memorizing talks:

1. Finish the script early—and freeze it.

Making changes at the last minute or throughout the memorization process can be your downfall.

When I coach speakers for TEDMED, TEDx or other TED-style talks, we spend lots of time early on getting the speech just right. During the writing process, we omit hard-to-remember phrases and add ones that are easier to say.

After that, we freeze the script. We stop making adjustments unless practice tells us we should (correcting a phrase that always prompts a stumble, for example).

2. Get away from the script as fast as you can.

It might seem strange to spend so much time on a script and then move away from it, but weaning yourself from the printed page aids memorization.

Make an audio recording of yourself reading the script with all the emphasis, pauses and other effects you’d like to use. You might need more than one try to get it right. Most of my clients record themselves on their smartphones. You’ll hate the recording, but it’s crucial to ditching the script.

3. Listen. Try. Repeat.

Your speech recording will become your new favorite podcast. Listen to it on your commute, when you exercise or while you clean the house. Then, start a pattern of listening and attempting to repeat sections of the speech. Listen again to hear what you missed, then recite again.

Some of my clients like to tackle the entire talk at once, but others like to work in sections. Determine which works best for you.

4. Know your talk’s structure.

If you’re worried that you’ll forget your talk, memorize your presentation’s structure: the opening, closing and an outline of what’s in the middle. Structure helps you remember what should come next.

You can also assign a keyword to each paragraph or section, and memorize those keywords. (Choose the most unusual word in a paragraph rather than trying to summarize the content. It works.)

5. If you omit, don’t quit.

Speakers can experience two kinds of forgetfulness.

The first kind is better than the second: You forget a line, but don’t realize that you forgot it until you’re offstage. This type of forgetting doesn’t interrupt your flow, and most of the time the audience doesn’t notice.

The second type of forgetfulness is more damaging. It interrupts you, because you realize you missed something a line or two back, and then you try to insert it later. If you drop a line mid-delivery, simply keep going. If you attempt to go back and work the line in, you’ll disrupt the presentation’s flow. This becomes easier with practice.

6. Adjust so you don’t sound too memorized.

Once you’ve memorized your talk, make adjustments to ensure your delivery doesn’t sound too rehearsed. Add some movements, pauses, a smile, a wink, clever asides and more. Plan, rehearse and memorize 85-90 percent of your talk, then save some time to pause and play off the crowd. You will sound like you’re just talking, not reciting.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 140 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article originally appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.

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