Public Speaking Tips for Memorising
Memorise: bad word!
‘Memorise’ conjures up images or memories (!) of school and of having to learn bits of poetry by heart.
I made an interesting discovery during the Covid pandemic. Bored as I was in lockdown and depressed by the glum drip of daily news, I decided to put some more uplifting thoughts into my head by memorising some poems.
Having got used to delivering speeches without notes I was surprised by how hard it was to commit a few lines of verse to memory.
As speakers, we need to find a way to remember our speech, but that is very different from trying to memorise word for word. ‘Remembering’ something usually means that it is already there in our head; ‘memorising’ implies something more forced.
Years later I can still tell you all the train stations between my home and my school, even though I never actually memorised them. In fact I can tell you most of the stations on the other lines as well, because I heard them being announced every day for seven years.
The problem I discovered in ‘memorising’ poems was that because I was learning them word for word if I forgot the next word in a sequence, I was lost! Word-for-word memorising is rigid and does not allow for spontaneity and flexibility, which is essential when presenting.
At the risk of sounding like hair-splitting, we need to find a way to ‘remember’ our speech, rather than trying to ‘memorise’ our speech.
The best way is to learn a way to remember what idea comes next rather than what word comes next.
The term I use is:
‘Vocalise rather than memorise’, which is more about letting the sequence of ideas settle instead of trying to retain too many individual words.
I will explain this in further detail as part of the tips below.
If we remember back to school days when we had an exam on a Tuesday morning and we had avoided all attempts at revision in the previous weeks, on Monday night we might cram as much as we could into our short-term memory, hoping that what we had memorised would stay with us for the exam in the morning. That may or may not have been a successful strategy for passing the exam, but whether pass or fail, I imagine that most of what we learned on Monday evening was already forgotten again by Thursday.
So the main problem most speakers have in ‘remembering’ their speech, is that they start too late in their preparation for their presentation and are forced to cram rather than allowing it to settle.
They then decide it is too risky, too late, or just not possible for them to remember and so resort to writing the presentation out word for word and reading it, - or realising they cannot cram it into their heads in time, instead cram it all onto too many PowerPoint slides. (Sound familiar?)
I remember a student once telling me that her managing director was brilliant at presenting. He would deliver a full thirty-minute presentation without any notes. She said it always flowed and made sense and he never got lost in his words.
The reason was simple: he was talking about his business! He had been working in it for thirty-five years and his main problem when presenting was not remembering what he wanted to say, it was knowing what to leave out!
10 tips for remembering (note – not memorising!) a speech
Most of these require a bit of time to allow the content of the speech to settle, though some are simple techniques for organising ideas at shorter notice (just in case you have left most of your preparation to Monday evening)
Do you need to memorise?
Deciding to deliver a speech without notes should not be some act of machismo, like eating three shredded wheat or going out wearing only a cotton T shirt when it is minus 5 degrees outside.
Does it improve the impact of the speech?
Therefore: the first question:
Do I even need to deliver without notes?
The main effect of not speaking to notes is to come across as more spontaneous, to be able to interact with your audience, to seem to have a greater authority and can to create a stronger connection with your listeners.
If the main purpose of your presentation is to deliver precise and accurate information, there is no benefit in doing that without notes. In fact it might be dangerous.
Facts need to be right and so benefit from notes; opinions are personal and benefit from without.
Donald Trump is much more comfortable without notes, which works well when he is campaigning, sharing his thoughts, or ‘riffing’ on themes of MAGA, injustice, and persecution. However, it means that when he went off message as the President of the USA, he needed a team of advisors and explainers to follow behind to put what he said into context, justify or even counter-act what he might have said on the fly.
If the accuracy of the content is more important than the person delivering it, there seems little benefit in speaking without notes.
Therefore when preparing, make a clear distinction between personal opinions that you are ‘sharing’ and information that you are ‘delivering’
You may decide to deliver most of your presentation without notes to increase your presence and credibility, but if you have a precisely worded quote form an expert or a significant set of figures to announce, there is no great advantage and plenty of danger in not reading them out.
Last things first
I live in London and if I want to go to Peterborough, it is directly north of where I am. So if I first establish where I want to get to I can then start working out the best route to get there. Many presenters know they need to go on a journey, open up PowerPoint and start by deciding whether to begin by going up the road or down the road. They cannot know whether that is the best way to start until they know where they want to end. In fact, everything about the presentation will depend on where you want to get to.
Therefore the most important first step in developing a scheme to help you deliver your presentation is to develop a very clear focus on the destination.
Often a broad structure will reveal itself: there may be five steps towards a conclusion or four parts of a process.
If there is not anything like that crying out to you, revert to the speaker’s structural friend – ‘three’:
three sections, three ideas, and three stages. That might reveal itself to you as:
past, present, future, or; one point of view, another point of view and a conclusion, or:
what the problem is, why it is important, and how we can solve it.
Try them on like clothes. Do they fit? Don’t force your speech into something that is too tight or unnatural.
Vocalise, don’t memorise
Once you have found a broad structure that might fit, use it to think through what you want to say or if you prefer write something down. The advantage of thinking is that because it is harder to remember every individual word you want to say, it forces you into establishing a natural structure. Maybe as you think through the first section, you keep forgetting a story you wanted to include. Does that mean the story is not as relevant as you thought, does the thought process flow better without the story, or does it fit better later on?
Think it through regularly
At his stage don’t get too bogged down in individual words, or precise details. Are you able in your mind to ‘walk through’ the overall structure to the presentation? If the structure makes sense, you will find it will settle and become easier to remember. If it does not feel natural, it will be a struggle to keep the flow which may force you into a more natural arrangement.
That might be individual stories, statistics, case studies and then, gradually, adding neat turns of phrase that are easy to remember. Referring back to our Peterborough analogy: if we have established the three sections of the journey as:
- home to the station
- train to Peterborough
- station to venue
Now within that scheme, we are deciding whether the best way to the station is by foot, bus or taxi.
And if we are going by foot, it might decide therefore to take a taxi from the station to the venue.
Are we going to eat our sandwiches on the way to the station or on the train?
So one section’s content might influence how we approach another section.
(And although we have never been to Peterborough before, we did recently go to Cambridge, so a similar approach might be a good way to start.)
By ‘walking’ the journey a few times in our head we will gradually find the easiest, most logical way of organising and balancing the individual elements.
Some schemes of remembering
Walking through a landscape
A popular technique of the ancient world was to imagine a speech broken into sections and imagine those sections associated with different parts of a house: the introduction is on the porch, leading to an overview of the topic in the hall, followed by the first idea in the living room etc. It can obviously be any visual reminder that helps you to visualise and therefore remember the sequence.
If I use traveling up to Peterborough as my memory aid,:
the decision to ‘investigate’ the problem could be the process of starting out and deciding to leave the house,
the early struggles could be the uphill walk to the station,
the benefit of modern technology could be the train journey that gets us there quickly….etc
The motivational speaker’s favourite!
(I might have heard a few too many of these.)
For example, a speaker might say
‘the key to a fully fulfilled life can be mapped to the word ‘SUCCESS’
S stands for – ‘set your goals’
U stands for - ‘understand your strengths
C stands for – ‘commit to do the work’
C stands for – ‘continue even when it is tough’…etc
This is a good technique for embedding a series of ideas in the listener’s mind, as they are able to use the same memory aid as the speaker.
However, you can always keep the word to yourself and use it as your private way of remembering your points.
I have a talk on the seven key ingredients for successful public speaking that map out to the letters of the word SPEAKER.
Words are hard to remember, but stories are not, because captured in a story is:
a chronological or logical sequence
- visual anchors to help memory (yours and the audience’s)
- a narrative that leads you through the detail of the story
- and if it is part of your own story, you automatically have:
credibility (it is your story), a unique perspective (no one else’s story), and an experience that the audience can relate to (a common story)
Bear in mind, that most TED talks are:
Tell a story and make a point
and there is a reason we have been telling stories since we could articulate because they are:
easy to remember, easy to deliver, and easy to relate to.
Pay attention to the transitions
If you have divided your presentation up into sections and you have taken the opportunity to vocalise your way through an individual section, as you prepare for your presentation, make sure you are very clear on what set of words or images are going to lead you from one section to the next.
I have seen many speeches falter, because the speaker could not work out how to get from one idea to the next. So pay extra attention to the joins!
Begin with the end in mind
Allow the speech to reveal its own best simple structure
Start to add detail to each section
Walk through it regularly
Keep focused on the key messages
Most of the individual words are not that important – the ideas are!