As a public speaker with over 7 years of experience, the most common questions I hear are: “How do I memorize a speech?” Or “Is there a memorization tool I can use to make sure I never forget any part of my presentation?” My response is always this – there are plenty of ways to lock your speech into your head, but without the need to learn your word by word, and line by line.
Attempting to memorize all of your presentations is an inefficient use of your time and energy. Worse, when you attempt rote (word-for-word) learning of your speeches the audience may feel shortchanged. Here’s why:
Word for word speeches are dull
Memorizing every line of your speech and replaying it to your audience is the worst possible way of giving a presentation. The words and sentences can sound clunky, the speech dull, and if you forget your lines there is no space to recover. Let’s look at it from a different perspective… have you ever listened to a small child reading from a book? It’s obvious they don’t yet fully understand the correct structure – grammar, punctuation, etc. – and their speeches are often a single stream of words with no pauses or room for breath. In the same way, when you memorize only the words, your speech sounds dull.
Even if you’re giving a technical brief or educational speech, there’s no need to learn every line and I’ll explain why in the next section.
Memorization leaves you no room for creativity
Creativity lies at the heart of every inspiring speech – without it, your presentation is little more than a series of words, strung together with no meaning and no direction. But how does line-by-line memorization destroy creativity? It’s for this reason – when you focus only on learning the words you box yourself in, leaving you with no room to ‘flex’ your speech according to your audience’s reactions. The very best public speakers – which you’ll soon be one of if you take this lesson to heart – know this fact and they use a more powerful form of memorization to create spell-binding talks and presentations.
Confused? Let me explain…
when you memorize word-for-word you lock yourself, and your audience, into a tight silo; there is no way you can expand your ideas and no way to incorporate audience responses. You’ve shackled your ability to respond on-demand and to have any chance of creating a success from your speech you must follow the script. This might seem depressing, and, in a way, it is but later in this post I’ll show you a way to memorize your speech to give you more freedom and maximize your creativity.
Your speech will sound mechanical
Have you ever tried to memorize a speech line by line, then out the words aloud? Did it seem mechanical and uninspiring? Probably.
When you attempt to memorize your speech in this way you leave little room to add emotions, hooks, and all the other public speaking tips and skills needed to wow your audience. And whilst it may not sound dull, memorization doesn’t give you the flexibility you need to become a truly brilliant public speaker. Rather than give a speech that sounds and feels like it’s being spoken by a machine, ditch the process of memorization!
Your memory has limitations
You have an amazing and very powerful brain. We know this because over and over science has shown the ability of this vital organ to adapt and grow according to tot the demands you place on it. And this is a key point to memorize – the more you learn the more your brainpower increases to meet the demands placed on it. But (there’s always a ‘but’) there are limitations. Like a computer, your memory can become cluttered with information which fragments and overlaps with other chunks of data stored in your memory banks leading to confusion. Right now you’re probably wondering where this is going so let’s drop the computer analogy and look at this from a different perspective.
Have you ever tried memorizing pieces of information from several different topics at the same time? If so, you’ve probably noticed some of the concepts merging into a blob of data which can be inaccurate. For example, let’s say you’re trying to memorize these three pieces of learning at the same time: how a combustion engine works, plumbing a bathroom, and how to repair a hair dryer. During the process of storing these topics in your brain the information merges and overlaps, and when you’re asked to explain key details from one, or all, of them you become confused.
It’s the same when you attempt to memorize large chunks of words in your speech. Along the way, some of those words are lost, or replaced, which can be frustrating leading to those dreaded ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’ (filler words) slipping into your speech. And this is all because there are limitations on how much information you can memorize. Now, our capacity for memorizing a speech varies on a person to person basis so don’t feel bad about this – some people find it easier than others to commit huge chunks of information to memory.
When you memorize your speech or presentation line-by-line you fail to deliver your audience’s needs. Whilst this type of memorization is a useful tool for short presentations that include specific technical information, it’s not the best method you can use. In the next section, we’re going to look at the right way to commit your speech to memory without the need to memorize every word, sentence, or section.
The right ways to memorize a speech
So far we’ve looked at why you shouldn’t attempt to memorize your speech word for word and you’re probably wondering the best way to commit your speech content to memory, right? Cool, we’re to explore a few tips I’ve learned over the years, each of which has improved both my public speaking and ability to memorize important information without overloading my brain. Before we move on, a word of caution – all of the tools I’m about to present require practice to master, but this won’t take long. In most cases, and with as little as 18 minutes of practice per day, they’ll soon become second nature.
Memorize concepts and ideas, not words
This is probably the most powerful tool I use for the purpose of memorizing a speech. You will still need to memorize key information, but not line-by-line. How does it work?
The key to mastering this memorization technique is to source as much data as you can on your chosen topic. For example, imagine you’re planning a speech on the effects of climate change, in particular the impact on Arctic and Antarctic wildlife. The type of research – the internet, books, your personal knowledge – you do is less important than how you capture the information for your presentation material. Instead of writing lines of information you intend to memorize, write short notes. Where you see related ideas, connect them with arrows, lines, etc.
This process of writing by hand is more effective than tapping away at a keyboard (link here). What’s more, this process of researching deep into the topic of your speech fills your memory with a huge amount of relevant information that can be recalled at will (you’ll never again find yourself struggling to find the right words during your presentation).
A simple technique to help you memorize your speech content is the practice of mind mapping…
The 20-20-20 technique
The 20-20-20 rule is a helpful technique for memorizing a speech which helps ensure you give a smooth delivery. Most public speakers I know employ this rule to memorize their speech word for word, but I recommend you combine it with the process of committing concepts and ideas to memory (paragraph above). Here’s how it works:
First 20 Minutes: Spend the initial 20 minutes reading and reviewing your speech thoroughly. Understand the overall structure, including bullet points you’ve created, and the key ideas. This initial step is essential to grasp the content comprehensively.
Next 20 Hours: Over the following 20 hours (spread over several days, or a couple of weeks), repeatedly practice and recite the ideas at the heart of your speech. Focus on one idea at a time, gradually committing each part to memory. Then practice speaking aloud as if you were delivering the speech to an audience, pulling all the ideas into a coherent stream of ideas that are linked and logical.
Final 20 Minutes: 20 minutes before you give your speech, run a final, and very rapid, review. Either speak out loud or walk mentally through the entire speech, emphasizing key points and transitions. This step acts as a means of reinforcing your speech before you go stage and I find it to be an effective way to memorize a speech – it’s a little like cramming right before a big exam.
The 20-20-20 rule uses spaced repetition, a proven memory retention technique, to help speakers memorize their speech. It works by distributing your practice sessions over time, strengthening your memory and recall ability. This approach not only aids in memorizing the speech but also builds confidence, as you become more familiar with the concepts and ideas.
On the big day, you’ll find that your diligent preparation using the 20-20-20 rule has helped you internalize the speech, making it easier to deliver smoothly and confidently.
If you’re interested in how this rule can be applied to your day-to-day life, here’s a video.
Use the mind palace method
The mind palace, or memory palace, is a more recent addition to my toolkit and has proven an effective way to memorize a speech I’m writing, the location of my car keys, and even as a way of memorizing a general to-do list. It’s a superb resource and I recommend you try it. using the previous topic of global warming, I’ve created this example of the full process you should practice:
Step 1: Define Your Mind Palace Begin by envisioning a familiar location, this should be somewhere you can ‘travel’ through without any other thoughts attempting to impose themselves and I recommend you choose your home. This will be your ‘mind palace,’ a mental space where you’ll store the speech’s key points.
Step 2: Divide Your Speech Break your speech into segments e.g. if you’re giving a speech on the topic of mankind’s impact on the environment you can break it down into sections such as introduction, causes of global warming, impacts on polar regions, and solutions. Each segment will occupy a distinct room or area in your ‘mind palace.’
Step 3: Create Vivid Mental Images For each segment, craft vivid mental images or associations. Picture melting ice caps in your childhood home’s living room (introduction), fiery factories in your kitchen (causes), polar bears in your bedroom (impacts), and wind turbines in your backyard (solutions).
Step 4: Connect and Navigate Visualize yourself moving through your ‘mind palace,’ from room to room. As you reach each area, recall the associated image and the key points of that speech segment.
Step 5: Practice and Refine Repetition is key. Walk through your ‘mind palace’ regularly, reinforcing your memory of the speech. With each practice, you’ll find recall becoming more natural.
Step 6: Deliver with Confidence On stage, let your ‘mind palace’ guide you. Move from room to room mentally, and the speech will flow effortlessly.
By employing this ‘mind palace’ technique, you’ll not only impress your audience with your amazing memory but also deliver an impactful speech that raises awareness about global warming’s devastating effects on the polar regions. Happy memorizing and speaking!
Some of you may have used flashcards in preparation for school exams and whilst I don’t recommend them as a way to entirely memorize a speech (which is what we are trying to avoid), they are a superb tool for helping you memorize small chunks of information you’ll add to our presentation.
Here’s how I use them:
To memorize bullet points. On a single card, write down 3 key ideas as bullet points and then recall the most important chunks of information related to each bullet;
As prompts for each stage of a story. You’re a public speaker and one of the skills you will learn is the art of turning your speech into a story. Write two to three words related to each stage of your story and use them as prompts when you are practcing your speech;
Draw a simple mind map to connect the ideas in your speech. A picture tells a thousand words and is much easier to remember than strings of text.
Forget memory and focus on your audience’s needs
Sometimes, I find the easiest to memorize a speech is simply to forget all the tips and advice you find on the internet and instead focus on what your audience wants. This method requires little practice as probably the key ingredient required in a public speaking engagement and is based on understanding the needs of the people you’ll be speaking to, and it’s one of the key skills that will take your presentations to the next level.
How does it work?
Simple. Put aside memorization, grab a pen and paper and ask yourself the following questions:
Who is my audience (managers, team members, technical, admin, children, etc.)? This is the most important stage as it will shape your speech and the content.
What does the audience want to take away from my speech?
How much knowledge is already in my head? If you already have a deep understanding of your presentation topic there is little you’ll need to memorize.
Am I confident I can give a 5 – 10 minute speech on this topic without having to refer to any kind of notes? If you are an expert in a given field you’ll probably find no need to memorize a speech, ever, as all the information is stored in your brain and you only need to extract the data and present it in a way your audience will find interesting.
Do I know anyone with a similar level of knowledge I could practice presenting my speech to and who can probably valuable comments and feedback?
Once you have the answers, you can start to plan your speech. Understanding your audience’s needs, knowing what they will likely want to hear, and how you use the latent information in your head to meet those needs is 99% of the work you should be doing in preparing for your speech.
When you start practicing, you’ll find there’s no need to memorize a speech ever again. The only consideration you do need to make is how to structure your speech in a way that keeps your audience hooked on your every word.
Note: it is possible to argue that practicing with a friend or colleague is a way of memorizing a speech, but I’d like you to put this idea to one side. What you’re looking for is a critique of content – does the person you’re presenting to feel you’ve given them all the information they want and do they feel inspired to carry out a specific action after you conclude your speech?
Memorizing your speech: a quick recap
I recommend you stop asking how to memorize a speech. Instead, take the tips above, use your skills of memorization, and commit the ideas and concepts to memory. When you fully understand the topic of your presentation there will never be an awkward moment where you forget your lines; you’ll be able to shift to supporting ideas and topics based on your audience’s responses; your speech will be far more interesting and fun for your listeners. This last idea is the most important to consider.
You’re probably reading this post because you’re in the process of learning how to create a speech that will resonate with the listeners and guarantee more bookings in future. When you start to plan out the sections of your speech, learning the key bullet points that will highlight and support your arguments, you need to have as much information as possible about the subject and it’s impossible to memorize it all (unless you’re a true expert and you have this knowledge locked in your head, but even then it can be hard to recall precisely all the words you want to memorize). With that in mind, here are the key takeaways:
Memorize ideas, not lines of text;
Create a mind palace to store important pieces of information you want to highlight in your speech;
Focus on your audience – the composition, needs, and the confidence you have in your ability to deliver a speech they’ll enjoy;
Use the 20-20-20 rule combined with flashcards to lock the important ideas into your brain.
I hope you find these tips helpful and you use them as you build your public speaking career.