Why You Should Stop Memorizing Your Speeches and Stories
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We couldn’t wait to see The Hobbit performed live at a small theater in our city. Avid fantasy readers, my partner and I were curious to see how a community theater company would adapt such an epic tale for the stage. The actors, sets and costumes were all fantastic.
We were enjoying the play, and in the final, climactic moment — as (spoiler alert!) Thorin was on his deathbed — he turned to Bilbo and said, “You braver more than you think you are.”
There was a sharp intake of breath and a collective pause. We all scrunched our foreheads. I heard someone whisper, “Was that what he was supposed to say?”
We waited for a correction. Another line, maybe? Nothing came. The curtains closed.
In that moment, the two-hour epic journey we had just watched was superseded by one, admittedly big, mistake. That’s all we will ever remember from that play.
I’m not telling this story to be critical or to scare anyone away from public speaking. God knows there is enough fear of public speaking to go around.
I tell this story because I want to point out a fact. Which is: Memorizing your speech word for word is not helpful or necessary.
Why you should not memorize your speech or story
- Memorizing takes an enormous amount of time. Unless you are gifted with an uncommonly good memory (the likes of which I have yet to see in my 20 years of speech and story coaching), trust me, you will spend more time memorizing than you can possibly predict. To which I ask — why? That energy could be put to better use building skills that will be more transformative. After all...
- Your speech isn’t a literary work. We might all long to be as clever as Bilbo riddling with Smaug, but in reality, your speech is not a book, and it will most likely not be critically analyzed for its language choices. It will, however, be received by a live audience who want to be entertained, to learn and ideally, be inspired to feel something. The tools you have at your disposal as a speaker include language and vocal tone, gesture, movement, facial expression, silence, eye contact and more. As soon as you stand before your audience, your whole person communicates, not just your words. To focus on words alone is to neglect most of your communication ability.
- You could end up like Thorin. When the actor who played Thorin flubbed his final line, a collective outpouring of pity and awkwardness filled the room. But you know what? That actor was on the final line of a two-hour play he had to memorize word-for-word. I suspect he was exhausted. I would have been. Here’s the rub: The demand of memorizing and recalling language can separate you from your audience. It can add to nervous anxiety and put a speaker at risk.
Focus instead on images and feelings
If I were to ask you to describe the storyline of The Hobbit (or your favorite book), what would you say? Try to break it down in 10 sentences or less. Now describe it again with a focus on images and feelings. Maybe add some dialogue, make your voice loud as you describe a tense scene or add a pause to build suspense. Exercises like this show that you can express an engaging story without carefully memorizing precise language.
Shift your memory work from small details to broad strokes and from precise language to feelings and images. This will empower you to speak freely and break down barriers between you and your audience. Think:
- Confidence before content
- Expressiveness over exactness
So, how much time should you spend choosing that perfect word and memorizing the precise phrase when it comes to crafting your speech or story? Zero. Stop the memorizing madness and let your feelings flow.