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Is Memorizing Your Presentation a Bad Idea?

Originally published in 2019 on Mandel Communications' blog.

Imagine being asked to give a speech tomorrow to your entire company—or to present to thousands of customers attending your latest user event.

Does the idea of it make you nervous? You might be tempted to get right to work, writing it down and committing it to memory.

Now, what if I said you couldn’t memorize it?

Whoa, wait a minute, you wonder, “How am I supposed to remember what to say?”

We’re taught from a very early age that our ability to memorize things is proof of our know-how. Our intelligence, even. Many of us are told as kids that to be successful and earn good grades, we have to be able to memorize and recall information.

The truth is, memorization can be a trap. To be successful as a public speaker? It takes more than a good memory to earn high marks from your audience.

The Problem with Memorization

Why is memorizing your talk from start to finish a problem? Because it assumes your only goal is to communicate facts—to give people information they didn’t have before.

You’re trying to do so much more.

You want to captivate people. You want to move people to think about things differently or to act in specific ways. And you want to be memorable.

To do those things, you have to know your talk “by heart,” as Seth Godin eloquently points out in a recent blog. You can’t just memorize it.

To take your talk beyond “awkward memorization,” as Seth terms it, you have to know the content so well that it takes a supporting role to your delivery.

In other words, to win people’s attention, to be memorable, and to motivate them with your message, you have to deliver it with authentic conviction. You have to genuinely connect with your audience.

Memorizing your talk prevents you from connecting. When you become so focused on reciting a script word-for-word, your delivery suffers. After reciting your talk too many times, you may even start to sound robotic. Your intonation grows flat and you fail to project conviction.

If you don’t seem passionate about your ideas, how can you expect your audience to be?

The other problem? Memorization makes you less adaptable. For example, what if an event manager suddenly tells you that you now only have 5 minutes to deliver a 15-minute talk you’d memorized? What if an audience member interrupts you and you can’t remember exactly where you left off?

Memorizing your talk paradoxically makes you MORE likely to forget it. Have you ever lost your place during a presentation and found yourself suddenly sweating or shaking as you tried to recover? If not, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen it happen to another unlucky soul.

Why do people become paralyzed or overwhelmed by anxiety in those moments? Because rote memorization trains your brain to believe that there’s only one right way to say it.

One misstep, one forgotten word, and your brain suddenly has to work harder to override its training, correct the “mistake,” and figure out what to do instead.

Plan and Practice, Don’t Memorize

If memorizing your talk is a bad idea, then what should you do instead?

The best speakers don’t rely on scripts. They use frameworks. A framework gives you a basis for the logical flow of ideas and information you want to communicate.

A framework, like the Mandel BLUEPRINT®, can help you define the main ideas of your presentation, while also giving you the freedom to adjust details as needed—whether to adapt to your audience’s needs or changes in your environment outside of your control.

Mandel clients use both our BLUEPRINT and SCI-PAB® frameworks to help clarify their thinking and effortlessly organize content into a powerfully engaging, audience-centric flow.

Using a similar framework can help you clarify your core message and organize your main points into a sequence that resonates with your audience.

Once you’ve planned your presentation, practice your delivery. We recommend that you record yourself. Then, watch it back to assess what needs more work.

  • Are you moving well or are your feet stuck to the floor?
  • Making good eye contact or eyes darting furiously?
  • Gesturing appropriately or hands clenched in front of you?
  • Using pauses effectively or racing through your presentation?
  • Varying your intonation or speaking in a monotone voice?

The best way to know where you need improvement is to observe yourself as if you were in the audience.

Practicing often helps you grow more comfortable with your content and more comfortable in your role as a speaker. The more you do it, the better you’ll be at focusing less on yourself and more on your audience.

Know It By Heart and Connect Authentically

Whatever framework you use, it should serve only as a guide or outline for your talk.

Don’t worry about the exact words you’ll say. Instead, focus on opening strong, closing stronger, and making your key points along the way.

Yes, remember the key points—but don’t commit a script to memory. Instead, plan your talk and practice it often. Get as comfortable as you can delivering it in an engaging and authentic way.

Because the key to connecting with your audience isn’t information. It’s emotion. And the key to knowing your talk by heart isn’t memorizing it—it’s knowing it so well, you don’t have to.

Learn More: Give your team the tools to become wildly successful, confident speakers who can roll with the unexpected.

Easy-to-use messaging frameworks, video-recorded practice sessions, and individualized coaching and feedback are all key components of our flagship presentation skills training workshop: The Extraordinary Presenter®.  You can also see our full set of Communication Skills courses here