When You Should – And Should NOT – Memorize a Speech
25 January 2018 | 10:05 am
I coach people on how to be persuasive and compelling in a variety of contexts, one of which is in preparation for giving a formal speech or presentation. This fall I’ve coached three TED talks, helped CFOs prepare for board meetings, directed dozens of entrepreneurs through their investor pitches, and prepared executives to deliver webinars to their global teams. But in all of these scenarios, one question always comes up: “Should I memorize the script?”
The simple answer is: it depends.
Disclaimer: I am a linguist, not an actor, so it never feels natural to recite scripted lines, even if I can deliver them naturally. However, there is a time and a place for it. Let’s look at how to make this decision, and then you can decide how to approach your next presentation.
There are time limits to most engagements, and the shorter your window, the more memorization can help ensure that you hit your key points before you run out of time.
When you have an extremely tight window, e.g. a two-minute elevator pitch, you can’t afford to fumble around searching for the right words. Even if you don’t memorize your whole spiel, if you plan to share an anecdote or explain a process, those can be good segments to rehearse and hone so you can recite them verbatim when the time comes.
Managing Audience Interaction
On the other hand, if you know that the audience can interrupt at any time with questions and comments, you’ll get completely derailed if you are relying exclusively on memorized lines. Once you can resume, there’s a good chance you’ve either forgotten where you left off or you remember, but it no longer flows naturally from the conversation.
Plus, if you have to respond extemporaneously to the comment, your speech style will probably sound different than during your memorized portion. This is a dead giveaway that you’re speaking from a script rather than from the heart.
Again, as I mentioned above, it can be useful to memorize certain excerpts, but be able to stray from the script as needed or desirable in the moment.
Notice that this resource is called “visual aids,” not “visual crutches.” A well-designed slide serves three basic purposes: It adds visual interest, makes the content easier for the audience to process, and serves as a prompt to remind the speaker what to discuss next.
The worst slides are the ones that are shortened versions of the speaker’s script, which the speaker then reads aloud off the screen in front of everyone. I have just one suggestion here: DON’T.
If you can read a lot of your script off your slide, so can your audience, at which point they don’t need you anymore. Keep the slides simple and textually sparse; put the full sentences and paragraphs in your talking points instead. The audience should be able to glance at a slide for a brief moment, understand the main point, and then turn their attention back to you as the source of more information.
Overall, scripts are not inherently evil; as I’ve explained above, they can be a great tool, and sometimes they’re even required. I have clients whose legal department needs to vet the language of any presentation intended for shareholders. (Note: If you ever want help writing engaging dialogue, do NOT ask the legal department!) But there are definitely some that are well written and effective, and those that are not.
Whether or not you script out your whole talk, speech or presentation, the goal is to ensure that it enables you to projects your true authority, confidence and leadership.