That is the question---and it has long plagued public speakers. The answers vary when it comes to giving the perfect speech, ranging from "do" to "don't" and everything in between.
Memorization is key. Many wrongly think you can't be "off the cuff" or natural if you have your speech memorized. On the contrary, you need to be adequately prepared to allow for such offshoots.
Know your speech backwards and forwards to avoid sounding artificial. No one likes sounding stiff and mechanical--or worse: blanking out. "What do I say next?" Avoid the embarrassment of forgetting--prepare.
Preparation builds a foundation for any kind of upset to happen without derailing the entire talk. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy said she hadn't intended to share about her traumatic brain injury during her popular TED Talk but her presence and preparedness allowed for her to throw in that personal tidbit.
How can you improvise without losing the heart of your talk? Memorize.
Start With the End in Mind
Begin the journey of memorizing your speech with the end.
Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, advises to "begin with the end in mind." What this really translates to is having a plan. If you know where you're going and have a map to get there, you'll most certainly end up arriving.
Practice the entirety of your speech as if it is the final performance. This will help that final performance feel like just another rehearsal.
TED cautions that if "a speaker sounds too rehearsed, they're not done rehearsing." To combat this artificial feeling, many speakers believe they shouldn't rehearse at all. The truth is counterintuitive--TED goes on to explain, "Speakers should run through the talk again and again, until they don't have to think about that fact that they're reciting a script."
Once you know your speech like the back of your hand, you're free to take natural pauses--allow room for authenticity to breathe through. You know the end is coming, relish in your journey to it.
But what are the ways to get your speech ingrained into your mind so you can enjoy the journey?
Know Your Mnemonics
Two-time USA Memory Champion Ron White claims his memory isn't all that great and yet he continues to amaze the country with his ability to memorize.
Instead of rote memorization, he creates a mental image for each piece of information he needs to remember. White also uses the memory palace technique popularized in the Sherlock Holmes stories that was originally developed by the ancient Greeks.
The memory palace or loci technique involves imagining a room you know well and assigning each piece of information to a different place in that room. For example, the intro to your speech includes a statistic--that's your kitchen sink. Next is your first talking point or your refrigerator. Carry on until your entire kitchen is plastered with the details of your talk.
When it's time to give your talk, picture the space in your mind--there's your speech.
Memorize Like TED
If you review any TED Talk, you'll notice all of the speakers have something in common: no notes. And they aren't using their slide decks as teleprompters either.
TED speakers know the importance of connecting with an audience. Constantly referring to notes, notecards or PowerPoint slides, breaks the eye contact necessary to build trust. Without trust, there's no connection. Without connection, the audience isn't receiving your message.
TED suggests speakers prepare an outline well before the date of their talk. From that, months of study and revision are necessary. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither was a TED Talk.
Start with the original sentences of your outline. Practice those until you know them like the back of your hand. Have them on note cards for reference. Once you feel well-versed, pare those sentences down to bulleted ideas. Repeat the intense practice regiment before making those bullets simply keywords. The next step is to go sans physical memory aids.
If you go the route of having high-impact visuals in your slide deck--and you should--they can also serve as memory aids. Just like the memory palace, each image is linked in your mind to what you have to say.
Only when a speaker knows their topic like the lyrics to their favorite song can they have the confidence necessary to deliver an engaging and memorable talk.Channel the power of TED and memorize your speech until it is second nature. Practice relentlessly--you're a natural.