How to Memorize Your Speech

Jon Farley© 2013 – By Jon Farley

(Although specifically written for speakers, every actor out there with a long monologue needs to read this.)

Do you speak, more or less extemporaneously, from a set of bullet points?

What if you have to, or want to, memorize a speech?  This may not happen often, but it does come up when there is specific language, or a rigid time constraint on your presentation.  And some speakers actually want to do this so they can have the freedom of repeating a set speech when needed.

It’s been reported that Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and sought-after public speaker, scripts and memorizes his speeches so that he is able to deliver them in an effortless and concise manner and end exactly on time.

For many people, memorization is difficult.  Recently, I had to learn a 1600 word monologue for a play I was doing.  It was very precise, almost poetic language.  I had to be word-perfect, and I knew that the memorization techniques I’ve used in the past would be inadequate for this task.

So,  I designed a new process for myself, and I have been tremendously pleased at how well this technique worked.

Here it is, simplified to a series of easy-to-follow steps:

1. Know what you are saying:  Before you start memorizing, you need to understand the text.  If you didn’t write it yourself, you will need to do some study.  If you did write it yourself, you’ll have to take it off the page and say it in your own words, not the “written/speaker’s” words.   How would you do this speech if you were telling a friend?

2. Make a study-script:  If you have your text in an electronic format, you can copy it into your new document.  If you are working from printed material, you’ll have to type it in by hand (which is a great idea since that helps with memorization).  It’s a first step toward owning the words.

Format your study-script as follows:

  • Set the type-face to 14 or 16 point Times Roman.  This is an easy to read font.
  • Insert a line break after each sentence.  This will make each sentence start at the left margin.
  • If you have a long compound sentence, insert a line break after each clause.
  • Leave an extra blank line between paragraphs.

(The effect of the above formatting is to put each thought on a line of its own.  The text is visually transformed into a sequence of thoughts and it is very easy for your eye to follow.)

  •  Print out your study-script on paper to work from.  Don’t staple the pages.  At some point you may want to lay them out side by side.
  • As you work with the study-script, use it as a place to keep your notes.  Write in the margins.  Circle or underline words.  Make this document the on-going record of your work on the speech.

3. Read it out loud:  Start reading the speech out loud in its entirety from your study-script.  Do this a couple of times a day.  Don’t bother reading it silently to yourself.  That won’t help.  What you are starting to do is to build a physical memory of what it feels like to say and hear those words.  Don’t worry about inflection or pace at this point.  It is too soon for that.   As a matter of fact the less inflection and pacing the better at this point.*  And, don’t deliberately try to memorize anything yet.  All you need to do is read it out loud from the page.  Make sure you read the whole thing each time, without interruption.

4. Give it a rest:  At some point you are going to get sick of the piece, or your schedule won’t allow you time to work on it.  That’s OK.  Set it aside for a day or two.  It’s good to alternate work and rest.  What is happening on those rest days is you are building a memory of the physical act of saying the monologue.  Rest is a necessary part of the process.

5. Look up:  After working with your study-script for a week or two, you will realize that you remember big sections of your speech.  Perhaps there are sentences or even whole paragraphs that you can say after simply glancing at the first word.  When you reach this point, you are ready to do some focused work on memorization.

Make the following adjustment to the way you are working:  While still holding the study-script, say as much as you can without glancing down.  But don’t make up a word that you can’t remember.  If you are stuck on a word, glance down at the page and get it, then look back up and keep going.  (Occasionally when delivering a speech, you may have to make up a word in order to keep going.  That’s fine for then, but don’t ever do this when you are learning the text!)

6. Work back to front:  When you are at the point when you almost never have to look down, it is time to really start drilling the piece.  Do this from the back to the front.

  • Get the last paragraph perfect first.
  • Then get the next to last paragraph perfect and always say it with the final paragraph, so you have them as a block.
  • Then do the same with the third to last paragraph and always connect it to the following two that you have already set.
  • Continue this way, adding earlier paragraphs and connecting them to the remainder of the speech until you reach the beginning of the speech.

This is something of a psychological trick, but it means that when you finally have the whole speech committed to memory, you will find that as you say it, each paragraph is easier to remember than the one before and when you get to the end, you will be at the part you know best.  Thus the final point of your speech; the call to action or whatever you want your audience to take away, will be said with the utmost composure and confidence.  Boom!  Success!

7. Explore:  Now that you have the speech in your body, you are free to explore all the subtleties of the piece.  This is when you will make the discoveries that will give your presentation dimension.  And what is exciting is that by now, you know the material so well that this exploration is organic and effortless.  You are free to follow every impulse without ever worrying about the words.  *And since you didn’t focus on  inflection and pacing at the very beginning, you don’t now have to fight against a sing-songy pace or  predetermined inflections that don’t work.

So that’s my memorization through osmosis technique.  It is based on steady “smart” work instead of “hard” work.  I believe you will find the results to be impressive.  You will be able to approach your presentation without fear of forgetting the words and thus will be able to devote all of your attention to your audience and to the story you have to tell.

Guest Contributor Jon Farley is an actor, writer, clown and aspiring aerialist residing in Portland, OR .

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ONCE MEMORIZEDArtwork 057

What do actors do to avoid their words sounding “memorized”, disconnected from their bodies (as if they are reading it)?

How do they make those words their own again?

Well, first we have to back track to the writing of the speech.

If  you’re the one writing the piece you should have written it the way you speak.  And if it’s someone else’s words, you beg them to make the changes necessary to make the words your own.  This will also help with the memorization.  I know when I’m in a play where the words feel like my own, they flow and are easier to memorize.  Everything is right with the world.  But if I have to memorize a script that feels foreign to me, it will take a good deal of work to get it down right.  And that’s why this article by Jon Farley should help you especially with someone else’s script.

Do yourself a favor as author.  Pretend you’re telling one person, a friend, who would love to hear about the information in your speech.  It almost writes itself that way.  And with some corrections – especially the introduction and conclusion – you have your speech.

Do the same for the one written by someone else.  Say the content of the speech to a friend. Let yourself remember what that feels like, especially in your body (some say they feel a connection in their chest).  You’ll have made it more your own by putting it in your own “conversational” mode, as opposed to “written” words.  It will make you feel as if you are really talking to an audience on a personal level and after all that’s what you want.  You want to talk to them, not at them.

That done, remember that after it’s memorized to go back to that initial place where you’re talking to one person.  Feel where that lives in your body.  Notice where the enthusiasm is caught (a word or phrase or image can nail it for you).  Notice where you’re interested in persuading, explaining, sharing because that’s what you want to do with an audience.  Bring this to the last stages of memorizing, where you’re playing with it.  Your enthusiasm for a gift that you are giving to them which will help them towards their goal, is a magnet. Make sure you bring that to your final speech.  And always remember that you are talking to a friend, –  someone who’s interested in hearing all about it.


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