One of my clients was recently told by her CEO that “It’s always better to speak without notes” — in other words, to memorize your talk.
What her boss really meant was that it looks impressive if you can deliver your talk without holding paper in your hand (or on the podium). But whether it’s always better is another thing entirely!
My opinion? It’s not always better to speak without a script — it’s only better if it works for you.
Here are three questions that will help you decide whether memorizing a particular speech makes sense for you.
1. In General, Are You Good at Memorizing Things?
The ability to memorize words — like every other human trait or skill — occurs on a continuum.
- Some people are fantastically good at it, and will remember a 20-stanza poem they learned in second grade when they’re 65 years old.
- Other people have poor memorization skills. No matter how often they repeat or practice a single phrase, they won’t remember it two days (or even two hours) later.
- Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. This means that — while you can memorize your speech — that process is likely to take a significant amount of time.
And just in case you feel judged by this, I don’t believe that memorization has any relationship to your intelligence, your communication skills, or your ability to deliver a great presentation.
2. How Long Is Your Speech?
There’s a big difference between memorizing speeches that are 3 minutes long and memorizing speeches that are 30 minutes long.
When you deliver a 30-minute speech from memory, it’s similar to running a marathon, with one big difference: If a marathoner gets unbearably disoriented or discouraged, he or she can just stop running.
But not a public speaker!
Even if your confidence flags or your memory fails, you’re committed to delivering your entire speech; and you might just find yourself wishing you had a few notes to help you across the finish line.
3. Do You Have Public Speaking Experience?
The chances are pretty good that, at some point in the process of delivering a speech that you’ve memorized, you’ll forget something.
This can happen because you get distracted, your energy level drops, or you just… forget!
But whatever the cause, it takes a certain amount of cunning, mental discipline, and sheer bravado to get through a memorization fail.
I last experienced this while delivering a conference presentation in 2013. I’d worked hard to memorize my talk, and everything was going great until suddenly — between one slide and the next — my mind went completely blank.
I don’t think anyone else noticed this epic fail (or at least, no one told me that they’d noticed it!) but faking through eight minutes until my memory returned wasn’t fun, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t had at least some public speaking experience.
As for me, I no longer go onstage without having notes for backup. It’s nice to not need your notes… but it’s even nicer to know that they’re close at hand if you do need them!
So Should You Memorize Your Speech, or Not?
If you still haven’t figured out your answer, think about your tolerance for risk:
- I have some clients who love being on a high wire, and will literally laugh if they fall off.
- But for others, the mere idea of forgetting what they were going to say as they stand before an audience is unbearable.
So memorize your speech if you want; if you’re willing to put in the time and effort; and if you can handle the possible discomfort of being all too human in public.
Just don’t decide to memorize your speech because someone else thinks that it’s “always better.”
And in case you wondered, my client took her notes to the podium, delivered her speech with confidence, and got big kudos from her CEO!