How to Memorize a Speech


On 6th January 2014 the Hollywood movie director Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon) was due to speak in front of a large audience at the CES conference (a large technology industry event in the US), helping to promote a fancy new TV from Samsung. However, when he got up on stage the teleprompter failed and he couldn’t remember what he had planned to say. As he clearly hadn’t memorized his speech he panicked and walked off the stage, surprising the audience that such a successful and powerful Hollywood mogul could get so unnerved by talking in front of them.


Many of us feel terrified at the prospect of giving a speech before an audience. In fact, for many it’s their number 1 fear! On the surface this might seem irrational, after all: what’s the worst that could happen. Our lives are not in danger if we don’t get it right. What we fear is humiliation. Humiliation is often the most intense emotion (maybe the only emotion more intense is extreme grief). It causes strong physical reactions in us. Our heart rate soars and the palms of our hands get sweaty. More embarrassingly, our face can go red (which everyone can see) and our mouth can go dry, making it awkward to speak. Some people – like Michael Bay – can even freeze up completely or have a panic attack. Others – even people who regularly give public speeches – actually vomit before they go on stage; so severe is their fear.


Why do we fear humiliation so much? It’s probably due to the environment our ancestors evolved in. For millions of years we lived in small groups, where everyone knew everyone else. Your chances in life – of finding a mate, and avoiding getting killed – were strongly influenced by how others in the group viewed you. If you did something that made you feel humiliated in front of the group then your social standing could plummet, and literally have life or death implications for you. Of course, this fear is unfounded in the modern world. Yes we might end up looking stupid in front of our peers, but the chances are they will not notice, quickly forget it, or empathise with you.


The key thing to remember is:

 

It’s perfectly normal and natural to be scared by giving a speech.


Why Memorize a Speech


The good news is that you can dramatically lower your feelings of fear by memorizing your speech. Memorizing your speech will firstly make you feel more confident. It will lower your fear of forgetting, which is one of the main aspects of being scared of talking in front of others. Even experienced stage actors get nightmares about forgetting their lines in the middle of a performance. It will help you seem more impressive and give the impression that you really know what you’re talking about. It will also help you seem more natural. The alternative for some is to actually read out their speech. But this usually sounds awkward and artificial and it gets in the way of the audience feeling connected to you and what you’re saying.

How to Memorize a Speech


The first thing to decide when memorizing a speech is whether you want to learn it word-by-word or just the structure and gist of it. Usually I would advice just trying to learn the structure and gist of what you are going to say. Learning the speech word for word is a lot more work, and might end up sounding almost as awkward as if you were reading it out. However, it might be appropriate for relatively short speeches, or if you definitely have to get it precisely right. I’ll cover how to do this shortly.

 

Another thing to check before you begin to memorize a speech is that you believe in everything you are going to say. Not really believing in something makes it harder to say publically and increases your chance of stumbling over your words or feeling awkward. The opposite of this is giving a speech on something you are proud to publically declare you believe in. Then you feel far more confident and fluid. Can you edit, re-word or adjust your speech to something that you feel more passionate about? Can you double-check that you believe all the points that you are making?

 

Once you’ve done that, we can get on to the memorizing itself. There are essentially seven ways to memorize a speech. I’ll cover them one by one, including their pros and cons. However, its important that you…


Read this first!
(How to do associative linking)


One principle that is common to most of these systems is the idea of associative linking. Our brains are great at remembering dramatic, humorous, or highly emotional images. You can take advantage of this power of your brain by making a link between the things you want to remember and these types of images. For this you need to get a bit creative, in coming up with memorable images that link to your key points, and that are cartoonish or dreamlike. For example, lets say you are giving a speech about the brain, and you have to remember to talk about the brain structure called the hippocampus. This word might remind you of a Hippopotamus on a college campus. However, just making up the emotional, humorous or dramatic image is not enough, you need two extra ingredients to ensure it’s memorable: consequence and sensory information. There must be some consequence to what is happening in the image. For example, maybe the Hippopotamus on the college campus is knocking students over, causing them to drop their books and pages of notes which are then fluttering all over the place. Make your consequence as dramatic as possible. Secondly, try to involve as much sensory detail as possible. For example, in the case of the hippopotamus, imagine the vibration on the ground as it stomps along, and the sound of its feet, and perhaps think about the feel of its rough skin. The more sensory detail you can add to your imagery the better.


Rote-learning


The most basic of all techniques is just brute repetition. If you go over the speech enough times you can burn it into your memory. One way you can do this is to make an audio recording – e.g. on your phone – of you delivering the speech. Then listen to it repeatedly: whilst you are exercising, cleaning, travelling. Just don’t try to listen to it whilst you are doing anything that involves language – such as writing or talking to people – as we can only properly concentrate on one stream of words at once. One benefit of this system is that it will also help you to memorize your speech by the rhythm and sound of what you are going to say. Our brains find remembering things that have a rhythm easier than those that don’t. Hence our ability to remember songs and even old advertising jingles. Another benefit to this method is that it will help highlight any sections of your speech that you find hard or awkward to say. For example, words that you find hard to pronounce. Then you can spend some extra time getting more fluid and practiced at those sections.

 

If you want to learn every word of your speech, you are going to have to use the rote-learning method (albeit probably in combination with other methods).

 

If you have at least a week or longer to memorize your speech, and you don’t mind putting in a lot of practice effort, I recommend you use what psychologists call an Ebbinghaus reminder schedule. This is based on the work of the 19th Century German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, who discovered that recall for newly learned things drops off on a sharp curve, with the biggest loss occurring during the first day or two. However, you can stop this forgetting curve if you remind yourself by practising several times, spaced out over a few days, with the most number of practises during the first 48 hours. For example, this would be a good set of times after which to practice your rote-learned speech:

 

After 1 hour

After 1 day

After 2 days

After 4 days

 

The Roman Room System


This is an old system that dates back to the time of the ancient Roman empire. In Rome the key to political power was to be able to give very persuasive public speeches, and as this was the age before Microsoft Powerpoint, there was no back-up prompts. Being able to memorize the key points of a speech made the orator seem more intelligent and persuasive. How did they do it? Essentially the method involves imagining a room that you know well, for example one of the rooms in your house. Next you list out the key points from your speech. Finally you create an imaginative image to link each point to an object within that room. Then when you mentally ‘walk’ around the room, the image of each object will prompt you to remember each key point.

 

For example, let say that your speech is about science fiction movies, and the room that you know really well that you want to use is your living room. Maybe starting off, as you walk into the living room the first thing you come to is your sofa, and the first thing you want to talk about is Star Trek. So you might imagine Captain Kirk sitting on your sofa. You need to try to make the image as memorable as you can. Pick out something specific about your sofa that comes to mind, and involve Captain Kirk with it. What is he doing on the sofa? How can you make the image as crazy or vivid as possible? The next item you might notice in your living room might be the coffee table, and the next movie you are going to talk about is ET. So perhaps you make an image of ET hiding under your coffee table.

 

And so on. These are goofy examples, but I’m sure you get the idea! You need to pick whatever is going to work for you. Once you’ve picked your images and made them as memorable as you can, practice mentally going through the journey and try to recall each one. If there are any that you miss, try to recreate the image in a stronger, more vivid way. Also, you may find that you get the order wrong, or miss out particular objects on the mental journey through the room. If so, go back and think of another object that more easily comes to mind, or just practice recalling it a few more times.

 

The Journey System


The journey system is very similar to the Roman Room technique. The difference is that instead of a room, you imagine yourself on a journey that you know well, and connect each point of your talk to a landmark, or object on that journey. The advantage of this system is that there are potentially more points on the journey than objects in the room, allowing you to remember more points.

 

The 1-to-10 System


The one-to-ten system is good for remembering up to ten key points for a speech. Essentially what you do is create a mental image of things that look like each of the numbers from one to ten. For example:

 

1 = Pen

2 = Swan

3 = Pair of handcuffs

4 = Sailing boat

5 = Hook

6 = Tadpole

7 = Boomerang

8 = Snowman

9 = Balloon on a string

10 = knife and plate

 

Alternatively you can create a system of images that sound like the numbers one to ten. For example:

 

1 = Bun

2 = Shoe

3 = Tree

4 = Door

5 = Hive (i.e. Bee-hive)

6 = Bricks

7 = Heaven

8 = Gate

9 = Wine

10 = Hen

 

Then simply connect each of your key points, in order, to each image from one to ten.

 

For example, if you were giving a speech about important inventions through history, and the first one that you were going to talk about was the wheel, you would want to make a mental image of either a pen or a bun (depending on which of the two systems above you were using) and a wheel. For example, you could imagine a wheel with its spokes made up of pens. Now, that alone would probably not be memorable enough, so there has to be some consequence to the spokes being pens. Perhaps as the wheel turns around, moving along, the pen tips are poking through and drawing colourful lines along the ground making a squeaky noise as they go. Remember: use imagination + consequences + as many senses as possible.

 

The Acronym System


With this system you break down each of your key points into one letter. It doesn’t matter what the letter is, as long as it will trigger your memory of that point. It would usually be the first letter from the word that summarises that point. Then you form the letters into a word. The downside to this method is that it can be hard to not only find a letter that will trigger the memory of each point reliably, but also fit them into a word so that it works in the order of points in your speech. However, if you can, then it can be a good system.


The Finger Method


If you have a relatively simple talk to give, or you think you can remember what you have to say, but you just want a quick way to ensure you don’t leave out any main points, then the finger method might be for you. Basically all you do is remember the number of main points you wish to make and count them off on your fingers as you go. This doesn’t actually help you to remember the content of the speech so much as alert you if you miss anything out. This method works best if you have ten points to remember (one for each finger). If you have a different number of points, you could consider using coins (or other small objects) instead. Begin by putting all the coins in one pocket, then as you make each point, transfer one coin over to your other pocket. Once your original pocket is completely empty of coins you’ll know that you’ve completely remembered all your points!


The Cue-Card System


A relatively simple way to memorize your speech is to rely on cue-cards. Just take a series of blank cards (or bits of paper) and write one or several words on each that will cue or remind you of each of the key points in your talk. Then place the cards in order and as you go through them, a quick glance at each card should be enough to keep you on track with your speech. Ideally you just want one or only several words rather than whole sentences, as you don’t really want to stop again and again during the talk to read through sentences. However, as a back-up, you could write more details on the back of each card. That way, if even the reminder of the words on the front of each card is not enough, you have the comfort of knowing that there are more details on the back.


Combining Systems


If you want, you can combine systems. The systems that best combine are the rote and the finger methods. Here’s how to combine them:

 

Combining the rote method:

The finger, one-to-ten, Roman Room Cue Cards and Journey methods are all based on helping you remember the key points of a talk, but not the details. The role method lets you get the details into your memory, but if you combine it with one of the other, just mentioned, methods, you have a super-strong system that will help you remember both the general structure of the speech, and its details. Alternatively, you could start off by just using one of the ‘key points’ methods, then when you are testing yourself, if you find that there are one or more sections that you struggle to recall, even though you know the key point, you could just focus on that area and use the rote method to burn it into your memory.

 

Combining the finger method:

If you are using one of the ‘key points’ methods, you could use the finger/coin method to double-check that you have recalled every point. One of the dangers of using the Roman Room or Journey method in particular is that it’s easy to skip over one object/point without realising it. By using the finger/coin method in combination you have a back-up.

 

Some extra tips

Test yourself at giving the speech and note down which parts, if any, you forget or struggle to remember. Put some extra time in to memorize those parts.

 

When you are trying to memorize your speech, find somewhere quiet and without interruptions. Good concentration will help form stronger memories.

 

And finally, remember that you are in control. No-one knows what’s coming next in the speech except you. Consequently no-one knows if you miss out a point: they had no idea you were going to say it in the first place! So as long as you are able to keep on talking, don’t panic if you forget one or two items.

 

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Did you find this article useful? Was everything clear or was there anything you didn’t understand? If you have any questions, or would just like to email me about your experiences with memorizing speeches, I'd love to hear from you: Contact me