In college I was a world-class crammer. In the hours leading up to any test, you could find me with a stack of notecards, trying to memorize a whole semester's worth of information.

I knew the strategy was a flimsy one and that I'd forget all the information the moment I handed in the test. However, I was young and in the grand scheme of things, not much was at stake.

Unfortunately, I see people take this same approach when trying to prepare for a speech. Just before it's time to deliver, they write it out, perfect every last word and then try to memorize it. This approach is a  recipe for disaster and, unlike receiving failing grade on a college exam in the privacy of your own dorm room, messing up a speech is a very public affair.

The next time you have a speech to give, here's why you should avoid memorizing it and what to do instead.

The problem with memorization

You've likely seen it happen before: a person gets up in front of the room, clearly nervous, and starts to give a speech. They get a few words in and suddenly it all goes awry. This happens on the show Shark Tank from time to time (and probably more instances hit the cutting room floor). Hopeful entrepreneurs have written, rehearsed and memorized the  perfect pitch. However, when they stand up in front of the sharks and start reciting their script, often a word or two goes missing.

Now, in everyday conversation, even in non-memorized speeches, words go missing all the time. You talk too fast and skip a word. You say the wrong word, backup, and choose a different one. It isn't a big deal. However, when you are depending on a memorized script, one skipped or forgotten word can cause a cascade of chaos. Each memorized word serves as a cue for the next word... if one goes missing, it all falls apart and what you see is an otherwise competent person frozen in front of a crowd, unable to speak.

Memorized speeches sound rigid and disconnected

Many years ago now I was invited to deliver an eight minute, high stakes speech. I didn't want to mess it up so I got to work memorizing every single word. When the day came to deliver the speech, I didn't forget a single word. I executed the presentation flawlessly.

However, when I walked off the stage, something didn't feel right. The applause had been lackluster and no one really seem interested in talking afterward. I tracked down a trusted advisor who had been in the audience and I asked him what went wrong. He told me that, in my efforts to memorize the speech, I had disconnected from the actual meaning of the words. I sounded like a robot reciting text, instead of a person passionate about a message.

So even if you do execute on your speech delivery, a memorized presentation often feels disconnected.

Familiarize instead

It's natural to think that memorizing your presentation is the best option. After all, you don't want to forget something important or lose your train of thought. And while you should know your story front to back and side to side--there is a difference between knowing your message and having it memorized. Instead of memorizing focus on familiarizing.

Put together a thorough outline of the presentation, but do not write it out word for word. From there, practice expanding on your points and delivering the speech out loud. Tell it to yourself in the shower or during your commute. Practice it informally to a friend or talk through your points in a conversational manner with your mom over the phone or your spouse at dinner.

Practice filling in the content blanks out loud, on the fly, and without trying to recall a memorized script you typed out on your computer. Each time you say it, you carve the content a little deeper into your brain until it's there quite naturally. You won't have to "memorize it," you'll simply know it.

I learned a lot of things in college (and spent a lot of money learning them). Unfortunately, I don't remember a single memorized fact. What I do remember are the real, authentic experiences with the people who were there. The same is true for speaking. Stay real, authentic and in the moment with your content. And if you memorize anything, it's this: forget about memorizing.

Published on: Oct 31, 2017