You’ve just been invited to give a talk. That’s great! Whether it’s for your speaking business or just a short speech in front of one of your community groups, you may be wondering how and whether to memorize your talk. What are some tips for memorizing it? How can you keep from forgetting your lines? For answers to these questions and more, read on.
Should I memorize my speech word-for-word?
First of all, it’s important to know whether you need to memorize your speech word-for-word. Typically, if you need to stick to a script, you will be told in advance that you need to do so, and will have notes for your talk.
But suppose you’re not allowed to bring notes onto the stage, or simply feel more comfortable walking around the lectern instead of standing behind it. What can you do to remember your lines?
Remember: for a lot of speeches you’ll give, you’re not going to have a Powerpoint or similar visual aids. So how are you going to stay focused and find cues?
There are a couple of tricks you can use. One method comes from speaker Harriet Turk, who told Grant Baldwin in our podcast on creating your talk that writing some bullet points on a notecard can be one way to succinctly outline a talk in a way that you can rely on, even when you’re on stage and nervous.
“Bullets are easy because they trigger what it is that you’re really wanting to do,” Turk said, “Whereas if you write it out and then you memorize it, you could have stage fright, or you’ve practiced it so much that you get to a point that you’re nervous and you forget.”
But you can’t wing it. After all, professional speakers don’t just make stuff up. They don’t just write a few thoughts on a notecard and then shoot from the hip for an entire presentation. They take the time to write and carefully craft their material. Read this super helpful post by Josh Sundquist for his tips on writing your speech, setting your fee, and booking your first gigs.
Methods to memorize your speech
So if you aren’t going to have a transcription of your talk on the stage (which you probably shouldn’t), and you’re not yet sure how to fit a 30-minute or even an hour-long speech on note cards, how can you store your content in your head without freezing up?
Sequential structures for memorizing your speech
One method Grant Baldwin discusses in our podcast on how to create your talk is to use different types of structures. For example, a sequential structure for memorizing your talk can take the main themes you want to speak about and put them in a sequential form, so that it’s easier to remember the order. Grant gives the example of a talk he gave for college audiences called “Life is a Highway,” where he talked about an imaginary road trip.
As Baldwin said, the way the talk was structured was to talk in the beginning about the past, and where the audience has been, then talk about the future, where they’re going, and to end by talking about where they are, right now. “It needs to almost happen in this certain sequence,” Baldwin said, “which also makes it easier for you to memorize because they need to go in this specific order.”
Another type of structure you can use to memorize your speech is a modular structure. This allows you to go in order, but it also allows you to jump around. This could be especially helpful if you’ve got a couple of main thoughts or ideas and they don’t necessarily have to go in a certain order. You can kind of mix and match them around, similar to how a band at a concert can switch songs around in their setlist.
Baldwin gives the example of topics he covered in a book talk for high school students, answering questions such as, should I go to college? how do I pay for college? What classes do I take? What do I major in? Job interviews, resumes, internships, credit cards, budgets, taxes, etc.
Similar to the sequential structure, it may be helpful for you to think of the content as telling a story, so that you don’t leave anything out. If you have five key themes, for example, that you’d like to cover, they could be five elements of a story you would like to tell. Remember: stories will keep your audience engaged and also make it easier for you to memorize your speech.
How to practice memorizing your speech
Got your outline for your talk? Decided whether to use a sequential or modular structure? Now you’re wondering, what’s next? The next step is to practice your outlined talk. If you get nervous before going on stage, this will be a game-changer. One of the best ways to minimize any nerves on stage is to practice so you know exactly where you’re going with your talk. (for more on managing nerves when you speak, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast). In the same way that you would practice a standardized test before taking it, or your lines in a play before performing, you should practice your speech before giving it.
Step 1: Read through – aloud.
When you’re speaking live, you don’t get a second take, as Grant Baldwin discusses in this Speaker Lab podcast on how to practice your talk. So you can benefit from practicing your entire talk all the way through beforehand.
How do you do this? “The first thing I do,” Baldwin said, “is [to] manuscript my talk…I’m not trying to learn a manuscript verbatim, I just want to know it. I want to know where I’m going, and I wanna know what it is that I want to communicate.”
Then, Baldwin says, he can read that talk out loud, as one continuous piece. This enables him (and you as a speaker) to ask questions like, does this flow together? Does this seem smooth? Are the transitions smooth as you’re going from this point into that point? Is it really clear what this talk is about?
As you read and go through your talk, you may realize that a particular story just doesn’t work. So you can just cut it out. Going through the whole manuscript by reading it aloud can help you catch things and rewrite anything that doesn’t fit. There will be things that need work, but oftentimes you won’t catch them just by reading your talk. That’s why you ought to do this by reading your talk out loud.
Step 2: Break your talk into sections
The next step Baldwin recommends is to begin to break your talk into sections. “I start trying to basically internalize the message,” Baldwin said. “I go paragraph by paragraph, trying to internalize the message.” Again, the goal here is not to memorize it verbatim. Unlike a singer, whose audience may know all the lyrics to the song she sings, if a speaker goes out of order, it may be impossible for the audience to notice – after all, they don’t have a script!
As you internalize your talk’s message, you can break the talk into sections that you either deliver in order or out of order. But regardless of how you break it up, you should determine what the point of each section is. It may be to tell a story to illustrate some key thoughts. Practicing that section could include practicing telling the story aloud, delivering the punchline, and transitioning out of that story into the next point that you’re trying to make. This will make it easier to memorize your speech.
Each section should stack on to what you’ve already learned. So once you learn paragraph one, then you can practice paragraph two. Then you can go back and practice one and two together – again, everyone has their own technique, but oftentimes out loud is best! (Another tactic here is to record yourself and listen back to help you to not only learn the material, but to also help decide if the material works.)
Step 3: Practice the talk as a whole
Once you’ve run through the whole talk and broken it into sections, you will want to practice the talk as a whole several times. Go from point A to point Z and see how long it takes. If it’s a 30-minute talk or an hour-long talk, this may take a while, but it’s worth it.
Practice like you would perform your talk. Don’t just go through the motions. Think through your hand gestures, your voice inflections, and your stage movement. If you plan to be using a handheld mic, practice with something to mimic that so you can get used to it. Knowing what action to take next can help you stay on track as you memorize your speech.
Create a rhythm to your talk. Rhythm means creating a pace or flow to your talk that makes it easier to follow and navigate for the audience. I generally follow this rhythm when presenting: present the main point or idea…expand on that point….tell a story related to that point…make application….wash, rinse, repeat.
You might also consider practicing in front of another person (ideally someone who can stand in well for an audience member), or in front of a mirror.
Remember: you don’t spend 10 minutes on this part. Depending on the length of your talk, it will number in the hours. That’s a big commitment. But each time you speak, you’re going to get better, and the talk is going to get easier.
All in all, knowing how to memorize your speech is a necessary skill for furthering your speaking career. Although you don’t need to remember word for word exactly what you have to say, having the entire outline and structure in your head rather than in a script will make your talk shine.
If you found this piece helpful, we have a great podcast with Grant Baldwin on how to create your talk. He tells us how he prepares for talks, what makes a talk good versus another talk, and what types of structures you can use to organize your content. You can listen to this podcast on creating a talk here. Want to read more about speaking tips? Take a look at our 100 tips for motivational speaking for any speaking engagement! Happy speaking!