See It, Say It

See It, Say It

 Learn to speak without notes!

 By Thomas J. Kittell, ACG, CL

Did you ever read a page in a book, flip the page and wonder, What did I just read? Did you ever go to a social function, get introduced to a few new people and promptly forget their names? Did your mind ever go blank halfway through a speech? Although you may not believe it, you do have a fantastic memory, and with a little practice you can easily remember your speeches, freeing you from the necessity of using notes.

I deliver dozens and dozens of speeches and presentations each year – virtually all of them from memory. Many people comment on how wonderful it must be to give speeches without using notes. When I tell them it’s easy to memorize a speech, they often say something like, “I have a terrible memory.” Worse yet, I have heard seasoned Toastmasters advise people not to memorize their speeches. Think about it. If you don’t memorize your speech, you only have two options: Use notes or make up your speech as you go along!

Orators in the old days delivered hour-long speeches. Many were reputed to recite speeches perfectly, word for word, time and again. The only way they could have done that was through memorization. If memorization worked for the great speakers of the past, it can work for Toastmasters today.

Some of the opposition to memorization comes from a misperception of how to memorize. For most people, memorization involves repeating things. That’s how we learned to do it in school. Teachers had us recite the alphabet, multiplication tables and foreign words over and over. That is known as rote memory. Some dictionaries define it as repetitious, unthinking memory – and psychologists tell us it’s about the least effective way to memorize.

The advice really should be to avoid rote memory. If you’re going to memorize speeches, use a technique that works. There are many options. The method I’ve found most useful, one used by great orators of the past and present, is the loci method (pronounced “low-key”).

As the story goes, a Greek poet named Simonides delivered a performance at a banquet hall. He was called away unexpectedly and shortly after he left, the entire building collapsed, killing everyone inside. Simonides helped identify the victims by using the image in his mind of various spectators watching him from the audience; in this way, he could picture where they were seated. The concept is ingeniously simple, but it requires a couple of simple foundational skills before you can use it.

Start by closing your eyes and thinking back to your earliest recollection from childhood. (Go ahead and really do this. It’s important). Did you remember one? Is it a picture you see in your mind? That picture is called visualization and it’s what makes your memory powerful. It is this ability to visualize that you’ll exploit to make remembering speeches a snap.

                    “Although you may not believe it, you do have a fantastic memory,
                    and with a little practice you can easily remember your speeches.”

If I were to read off a list of 10 items in 30 seconds, you would probably remember about half in the correct order. (Don’t believe me? Have someone write a list and read it to you). To show you how much of a difference visualization makes, read the short story on the next page and actually see yourself there. See the sights, touch objects and hear the sounds.

Picture yourself starving and looking for food in a church on a hill. You see a turkey and chase it into a rose bush. Cast rolls on the ground to lure her out. When she comes out, throw a linen tablecloth over her. Now shoot her with a ray gun and then hit her with the gun. You feel so mean that you make amends by feeding her graham crackers and playing soothing melodies on your mandolin. Finally, stick your head in a can of tea.

Without referring to the text, where are you looking for food? What did you chase? Where did it run? What action did you take to lure her out? What did you throw over her? You shot her with what? Then what did you do with the gun? What did you feed her? What instrument did you play? What did you stick your head in? Well, did you get them all right? Congratulations, you just memorized 10 items in order in about 30 seconds.

Researchers believe that the part of the brain responsible for memory is the hippocampus. If this portion of the brain is sufficiently stimulated, memorization occurs. Since we are relying on our ability to visualize, we need to make the images memorable. If you didn’t get all 10, you need a little practice with your imagination to make the images stick. There are a couple ways to make things more memorable. Here are some techniques.

Exaggerate what you see. Exaggerate the size: Picture small things as enormous and large things as tiny. Instead of seeing one thing, see millions. For instance, if I ask you to visualize an ant on your grandmother’s house, that might not be too memorable. If I ask you to picture a 30-foot-tall ant on your grandmother’s house, that would be easy to see and very memorable.

Action also helps make the picture memorable. Imagine the 30-foot-tall ant eating your grandmother’s house!

We can also exchange one concept for another. If you want to remember that you are flying on Southwest Airlines this week, don’t picture a Southwest jet. All jets look the same. Instead, see a giant cactus (or something else that reminds you of the Southwest) flying as if it were a jet. Interact with your picture. See yourself riding on it. Bring your senses in to play. Feel the needles pricking the back of your legs! Bring your emotions in to the picture. Imagine how horrified you are sitting on a cactus at 30,000 feet!

The wilder you make the picture, the more likely that it will stick in your mind. Of course, this works great for remembering objects, but suppose you need to remember intangibles, like ideas, concepts or themes. To “see” these, use substitutes. Substitutes help us picture tangible things we can see that remind of the intangible things we can’t see.

                    “The dullest pencil is keener than the sharpest mind. Don’t feel compelled
                    to sacrifice notes completely if they make you feel more confident.

Recall the 10 items. You actually used “substitutes” to remember the 10 Most Influential Leaders and Revolutionaries of the 20th Century – as selected in a Time 100 Poll, (published in the January 19, 2000 issue). Where are you looking for food? If I say “Church on a Hill,” what great leader might that bring to mind? Winston Churchill. How about Ray Gun? Ronald Reagan. Some of the substitutes you used require more imagination, but recall the story and see if you can guess all the names. The answers appear on page 15. Once you make the connection between the name and the substitute, you’ll never forget the list.

Now that you have the basics, let’s revisit the loci (locations) method. To use it, you take a mental journey through a place and what you see reminds you of what to say. You used the loci method for the list of influential people. We took a mental journey in and around a church. Although you did this to remember people’s last names, those 10 items could just have easily been the 10 points in your next speech.

Here’s how you use the loci method to remember a speech:

  • Break the speech down into logical parts. I use paragraphs, but many speakers prefer to use bullet points. Paragraphs or bullet points work equally well.
  • Visualize a picture for each paragraph or bullet point. I visualize part of the first line in each paragraph because if I can remember that line, I can speak through the rest of the paragraph. For instance, if a paragraph begins, “There will be a significant financial burden on the elderly if this tax increase is approved,” I might picture an elderly person carrying a gigantic roll of quarters. I only need to visualize the “financial burden on the elderly” part. Since I have familiarity with my subject and my speech, the rest comes to mind as I’m speaking.
  • Determine the loci – the locations. You can use any place or any thing you can see in your mind; your home, where you work, the trip to the mall, even your own body can serve as the setting. In our example, the place was the church and grounds.
  • Progress through each location and “link” your visualizations along the way. We linked a turkey to the rose bush by chasing her into it. We linked a ray gun to the turkey by shooting her. Move through your places in an orderly manner and link your visualizations in order. When you give your speech, mentally walk through your places in the same order.

Now pretend that your speech was about these 10 people. To deliver the speech, just walk your mind’s eye through the locations. See yourself in the church, then talk about Churchill. Then see a turkey and talk about Ataturk, then chase her into the rose bush and talk about Roosevelt. Even in the heat of the moment, when all eyes are on you and the clock is ticking, you will easily see what you want to talk about. You won’t need any notes. You’ll see it and say it!

Suppose you have many things to say about Winston Churchill. You can add other visualizations to the church. Link one point you want to make about Churchill to the steps out front, one to the front door, one to the pew, etc. Now take a walk to the church, see the steps and talk about what’s linked there. Then do the same with the door, and move on to the pew. Get the picture? You can even begin linking visualizations to other visualizations! You’re only limited by your imagination.

You can find out more about this and other memory skills by visiting your local library or bookstore. I like The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. You can also go to for a lot of great, free information.

It’s valuable to remember, however, that the dullest pencil is keener than the sharpest mind. Don’t feel compelled to sacrifice notes completely if they make you feel more confident. Take them along with you but leave them sitting on the lectern and try not to use them unless you’re absolutely stuck. Usually, you can remember your place just by running through the loci in your mind. It only takes a second.

Using this technique is a bit like learning to use a computer. It seems strange at first and you may be tempted to do it the “old way.” But with a little practice, you’ll be able to accomplish incredible tasks you never could before. You remembered the outline for a speech about 10 people in just 30 seconds! Imagine what you could do with five minutes! Have confidence. You do have a fantastic memory. Don’t believe me? What’s on your grandmother’s house? What airline are you flying? What’s in the rose bush? What did you stick your head in... 

Thomas J. Kittell, ACG, CL, co-owner and the Chief Executive Officer for Memory Improvement Systems, Inc., of Orem, Utah, is the president of the Fairlawn Toastmasters in Fairlawn, Ohio and the District 10 Central Division Governor. 


Answer Key for
“The 10 Most Influential Leaders and Revolutionaries”

Church on a hill (Winston Churchill), A turkey (Mustafa Kemal Ataturk), Rose bush (Franklin Roosevelt), Cast rolls (Fidel Castro), linen tablecloth (Vladimir Lenin), Ray gun (Ronald Reagan), Hit her (Hitler), Graham (Billy Graham), Mandolin (Nelson Mandela), Can of tea (John Kennedy).