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June 2024
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Speaking Without Notes

How to memorize most or all of your speech.

By Bill Brown, DTM

Click the play button to hear Bill Brown’s speech memorization tips.

You have just spent a considerable amount of time writing your next speech. Whew! You’re done. And then, as you review your Pathways assignment, you read those dreaded words: Don’t use notes. What?! Why in the world would I want to spend time memorizing it? I will answer that question and give some tips on how to get away from what is all too often our favorite crutch. The effectiveness of a speech is determined not only by the words you say but also how you say them. I am a professional narrator, and I am good at reading scripts. Yet I memorize my speeches. Why? Because I do a much better job delivering a speech when I do.

Reading a prepared text is appropriate in certain situations, especially if you are reading a quotation. But even that takes work (which I discuss in detail in an article I wrote for the February 2017 issue of the Toastmaster magazine).

You might be asking, “What’s so bad about reading my speech?” First, you significantly limit your expressiveness when you do, and with it, your effectiveness. Next, it is easy to emphasize the wrong words and phrases. It is also far too easy to misread some of the words. Essentially, you risk sounding boring and artificial. And then there’s the audience connection. When you read, unless you are using a teleprompter, you are probably looking down, meaning eye contact is minimal. This also makes you harder to hear, unless you are wearing a microphone. And what does your audience see when you are looking down? The top of your head. That might not be your best side. Just saying.

So, how do you get away from using notes? I use two approaches, depending on the nature and length of my speech or presentation. The first method is for shorter speeches, like most you would give in a club setting.

Preparing for a Short Speech

When constructing a building, the contractors first create a foundation and basic frame, then attach the various components to it. Memorizing a 5- to 12-minute Toastmasters speech is very similar. You constructed your speech with a logical flow. That is your skeleton. Keep that in mind. Then memorize each thought or paragraph, one at a time.

“As a wordsmith, what I write is important to me, so I memorize most of my Toastmasters speeches word for word.”

Eleven years ago, I entered a Tall Tales contest with a story about a skiing adventure. I can still deliver that speech word for word today because I am visually going down that hill in my mind as I deliver it. My focus is on the skeleton. As a wordsmith, what I write is important to me, so I memorize most of my Toastmasters speeches word for word. I start with the first paragraph and keep at it until I can deliver it easily, naturally and accurately. Once I can do this without making a mistake, I move on to paragraph two. I continue until I can deliver the first two paragraphs word for word in sequence. Then on to the rest of the speech, until I know it verbatim.

Preparing for a Longer Speech

But what about a longer presentation, like the 45-minute Toastmasters training I recently conducted? For any speech longer than 15 minutes, I speak from a general outline—just the major headings. I don’t start there, however. The logical flow is still important—as are brevity and clarity.

I start with a detailed outline of my presentation. As I practice it, I find out where there are logical holes and where I am too wordy. Then I edit accordingly.

Once I have the presentation outlined the way I want it, I practice it using that detailed outline. Over time, I end up knowing what I want to say with fewer notes. My outline, then, gets more general. Eventually, I only need the basic chapter headings, which I type as a numbered list in large font on a single sheet of paper.

These two approaches are different, but a key factor binds them together: practice. Relying on your memory ­without it is risky. Know what you are going to say, then practice it until you have it down cold. I hope this helps you move away from your notes. If you can speak clearly, concisely and effectively without using notes, you will sound like someone who knows what they are talking about, someone who has command of their material. And that, in and of itself, will go a long way toward making your presentation a real winner. 

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