February 22, 2016

Should You Memorize Your TED talk?

Does Memorization Help or Hurt Your Speech?

Early on in my speaking career, I was getting booked fairly consistently with a speech called, The Positive Power of Change. That keynote was filled with a number of stories, including my signature story, the Streaking Story. It was exciting to know that I had a speech that worked every time.

During that time, I was starting to develop my portfolio of products to sell at the back of the room

I knew that I needed to have products to sell, but I didn’t know where to start. One of my speaking buddies suggested that I simply record one of my keynotes and use that as my first audio product. So the next time I spoke, I audio-recorded the speech. I couldn’t wait to get home and listen to the recording. Much to my dismay, I was disappointed. It wasn’t the quality of the recording that was disappointing, it was my speech.

As I listened to the recording, I realized that I added things that I didn’t intend to add and left things out that were important. Some of my stories were precise, but others were sloppy. I knew that I couldn’t use that recording as a product, because it didn’t represented the best I had to offer.

And then it happened. I gave the worst speech of my life. For some reason, on that particular day, I really messed up. I was all over the place. Afterward, I vowed to myself and to every audience that I’d even speak to again, to be more precise, more deliberate and more professional.

A Realization

Many years earlier, when I was an actor in a play, the story was already written. All I had to do was memorize my lines and then make them come alive when the curtain went up. And if the play was a good one, the same lines worked every night. We just had to stick to the script!

While it was the same script with the same staging and lines of dialogue, each performance was different because every actor was striving to make the script come alive and give their best performance. I thought to myself, “What if I apply that same process from acting, to my speeches and stories?”

About this same time I was looking for a good quote to add to my keynote. When I found the quote I liked, I memorized it. It was at that moment that I had an “ah ha” moment. Why was I so willing to memorize someone else’s words, but not my own? Why not quote myself by memorizing some of my best material? From that point on, memorization took on a new meaning. It meant that I had to start writing things that people would want to quote me on.

I decided to start scripting with my most familiar material, my Streaking Story. It didn’t take long to realize that there were a number of places in the story where I had to make a decision about what version of the story I wanted to write down.

I also discovered that writing a script to be spoken was very different that writing a script to be read. I had to learn how to write differently, conversationally, like I was talking to a friend over lunch. It took awhile to work out this new scripting process, but I finally found a way that worked.

Talk Onto Paper or Talk and Transcribe

I sat at my computer and talked and typed. I talked my story out loud and typed it just as it came out of my mouth. When I finished the script, and when I went out to deliver my next keynote, to my surprise, I was able to deliver the story as scripted with 95% accuracy. The process of writing and polishing the script had become a memorization exercise as well. From there I went on to script my entire keynote, word-for-word. While I never intended to memorize every word of my keynote, the process of writing it out forced me to make strategic decisions about the best way to say things.

Have you ever watched a You Tube or TED video of someone giving a speech or telling a story? If you were a meeting planner and you liked what you saw and wanted to hire that speaker, would you expect that speaker to deliver the same speech, or very near to it, at your meeting?

TED Talks are Often Scripted and Memorized

If you watch the best TED talks, you will be watching speakers that have written out and practiced their speech over and over. In the process of practicing, most of the speech becomes memorized. In the moment of performance, the memorization doesn’t hinder the speakers authenticity. It simply allows them to deliver the speech they intended to deliver.

Professional speakers who have memorized their best material, especially their stories, will tell you that memorization does not inhibit spontaneity. To the contrary, it frees them to know they can deliver a keynote that works every time regardless of the venue, audience, or how they happen to be feeling at the time.

It’s time to stop winging it in front of your audiences. Write out your best material and memorize it. Start by memorizing your opening, your closing and your stories. Then go on to memorize other key points and pieces of content and comedy. You don’t need to memorize your whole speech, word for word, but you do want to be sure you can replicate your main pieces of content and your stories. Trust me, you’ll love the results, and so will your clients. The script shall set you free!


Doug Stevenson, CSP, works with individuals and organizations to help them identify and tell inspiring stories that make a point, teach a lesson or sell a product or service. He is the president of Story Theater International, a Tucson, Arizona based consultancy. He is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method and the Next Level Video eLearning Series.

His has delivered keynote speeches, workshops and training courses on storytelling and story selling for clients in 16 countries including Aetna, Abbott Labs, Amgen, Caterpillar, Con Agra Foods, Deloitte, Google, Genentech, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Oracle, Volkswagen, Verizon, The Nickelodeon Channel, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

To inquire about Doug’s availability email: deborah@dougstevenson.com

Doug can be reached at 1-719-310-8586. Learn more about how Doug can help you tell your story, attend a Story Theater Retreat, purchase the book, eBook or Story Theater audio six pack, and sign-up for the free Story Theater newsletter at: www.storytelling-in-business.com.

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