Many decades ago, a popular television commercial touted a recordable audio cassette which, its makers claimed, had such incredible sound quality as to make it impossible to distinguish a live performance from a recorded one. The ad left viewers with a memorable catchphrase: Is it live, or is it Memorex?
I think of that line when watching a presenter deliver a speech they’ve remembered verbatim: Is it live, or is it memorized?
Audiences can tell when a speaker has memorized their talk. It’s almost as if someone has pressed play on the presenter—but when the speaker forgets a word or loses their place, you can practically see the tape unspooling from their brain’s cassette. If anything interrupts that flow-a technical glitch or an audience member’s question at an unexpected moment in the program-it can throw them into internal chaos and destroy their rhythm.
There’s another challenge when speaking from memory. If a speaker is using a large portion of their mental energy to search for the words that come next, they’re probably not paying enough attention to subtle signs from the audience that might signal confusion, annoyance or disagreement.
That can make them appear disconnected from their audience, as if they weren’t really in the same room with them. As Dale Carnegie noted in “The Quick & Easy Way to Effective Speaking”:
We will probably deliver [a memorized talk] in a mechanical way. Why? Because it will not come from our hearts, but from our memories.
Many people want to memorize their talk because they believe it will make them appear more “polished.” That might be true in some cases—but memorizing a talk can have more downsides than upsides, particularly because audiences generally won’t punish speakers who occasionally (and confidently) glance at their notes.
Don’t memorize; internalize
Some speakers can deliver a memorized script while sounding conversational, reacting in the moment to unexpected events and returning seamlessly to their memorized remarks.
Many people try to emulate TED-like speakers who have presented to large international audiences with great success. (It’s worth noting, however, that TED speakers typically practice their talks for many months, a luxury most presenters don’t have.)
If you’re determined to “memorize” your talk, remember this: Internalize, don’t memorize.
Memorizing means trying to remember every word. That’s a challenging prospect for even seasoned actors who deliver the same stage show night after night. In contrast, internalizing means you’ve memorized the sequence of your talk and the main points you intend to address in each section. (Veteran actors also understand the crux of the scene and the character’s objective, so when they “go up,” forgetting their next line, ad-libbing and improvising generally go unnoticed by the audience.)
Perhaps some of the specific words you use in your talk will be delivered exactly as you rehearsed them—particularly key takeaways, quotes or transitions—but internalizing your talk means that you’re so familiar with the material that you’re also able to deviate from your rehearsed script and deliver the same points with different words.
How speaking from memory is like jazz
As an analogy, consider jazz music, which is known for its skilled improvisation. If you attend a jazz concert, each musician may improvise a solo at some point. Although the piece of music may never have been played that way before, the other musicians on stage will know how to accompany their improvising bandmate because they understand the underlying structure of jazz.
The notes and musical phrases might be improvised—but the rules governing their overall choices are known to each player. In much the same way, internalizing your talk means being able to follow a set structure—without undue rigidity. Think of it less as “memorizing” a talk and more as delivering a talk without notes.
Memorizing keywords can help you internalize your presentation. If your talk has three parts, for example, you might memorize the keyword trigger for each section: “Pollution, Regulation, Optimistic Future.”
To make memorizing those triggers even easier, choose keywords that form a memorable acronym; in this case, the acronym would be “PROF.” If you go blank during your talk, remembering the mnemonic device of speaking like a “prof,” or a professor, will help you get back on track quickly.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that talks with clear narratives or chronologies-those with a distinct beginning, middle and end that build logically upon one another-are often the easiest presentations to deliver without notes.
Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: ” The Media Training Bible” and “ 101 Ways to Open a Speech.”