To memorize, or not to memorize your speech? That is the … um …

You’ve seen those impressive speakers rattling off their TED Talks as if they were recounting a familiar anecdote. It’s not that simple. Here are tips for keeping a presentation spontaneous.

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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.

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