I’m not a big fan of memorizing. (My Public Speaking Tip 88: Three Questions to Ask BEFORE You Memorize Your Speech, is actually a subtle attempt to discourage you from doing it.)
Rather, I recommend “internalizing,” which means practicing a talk so that it sinks in and you’re not dependent on your notes.
Still, memorizing has its moments — like when you’re giving a TEDx talk, or when your boss insists you memorize — and when you have to do it, these tips will help.
1. Divide Your Talk Into Bite-Sized Chunks (a/k/a Ideas)
Memorizing an entire talk is like trying to swim the entire ocean — there’s too much of it, and you’ll quickly get discouraged and exhausted.
You can avoid drowning by dividing your talk into small, naturally occurring sections, based on the ideas that you’re discussing.
How do you know where your sections divide? When you start talking about something new, that’s a new section.
To start memorizing:
- Pick a section that you’re comfortable with.
- Give yourself a launching pad into this section by adding the last few words (preferably a sentence or phrase) from the section that comes before it.
- And give your section a link to the next by also adding the first few words (preferably a sentence or phrase) from whatever section follows it.
2. Now Practice Recalling Your Section, Not Reading It
When I’m trying to internalize a talk — letting the essence of it sink into my mind, rather than the actual words — I’ll pretend that I’m onstage and read my speech outloud to an “audience.”
But for memorizing — committing actual words to memory — this technique doesn’t work as well.
Gabriel Wyner explains why in Fluent Forever, his wonderful book on language learning:
When you study by reading through a list [of words in a new language] multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it.
Wyner’s advice also applies to recalling a paragraph or section from your talk.
So, here’s what to do:
- Read the small section that you chose out loud, and as you’re reading it, think about what it means. (As Wyner notes, it’s easier to form memories when the words are connected to vivid images with personal meaning.)
- Now close your eyes and try to recall the words you just read.
- Open your eyes and check to see what you forgot.
- Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as needed until you remember the section.
- Now put it aside and come back tomorrow to see if you still remember it. (If you don’t, refresh your memory by repeating this sequence.)
3. Memorize and Practice Recalling Small Sections of Your Talk Throughout the Day
Just as it’s best to practice delivering individual ideas from your talk in small bites throughout your day, it’s best to memorize that way, too.
Instead of trying to cram large chunks of words into your brain at one time, space out your memorizing, test your recall immediately, and then test it again (and refresh your memory, if needed) a day later.
4. Put It All Together
The sections you’ve carefully memorized are like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle — and now it’s time to fit the big picture together.
Fortunately, in addition to memorizing sections, you’ve learned the words leading into and the words leading out of them.
Now, all you need to do now is connect those links.
You can do this by making a list of the sections in order; by referring to your original script; by writing the name of each section on a flash card and sorting them on your desk or kitchen table; or by using any other method that occurs to you.
If it’s not perfect (which it probably won’t be)
Go through your speech from memory — from beginning to end — but don’t barrel through the places where your memory fails you, or spend time in a futile search. (If you do, you’re practicing feeling hesitant and uncertain.)
Instead, pick up your notes and refresh your memory, repeating the phrase or section that you forgot several times and testing your recall before proceeding.
And when you’ve finally nailed it…
CONGRATULATIONS! You’re now a Master Memorizer!!
Pat yourself on the back, have a glass of wine (or whatever you prefer), and practice your talk again tomorrow! 🙂