The trick to public speaking is to stop memorizing

Take note: don’t memorize.
Take note: don’t memorize.
Image: AP/Ric Feld
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There you are, standing in front of a group of people in the middle of your high-stakes presentation, at a loss for what to say next. It’s awful, excruciating, painful, right?

If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. Public speaking is one of the top fears in the US, and forgetting what to say during a presentation is the most frequent one I hear from my MBA students and coaching clients alike.

But here’s the thing: The most logical sounding coping mechanism you may be tempted to employ to help you avoid this scenario—i.e., memorizing your presentation—can make you more likely to forget it.

This is partly because by committing your script to memory, you establish one “right” way to communicate your content.

You limit yourself to one specific target to hit. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.

If you stray from the script, perhaps rearrange a point or two, or have to circle back to include a point you initially forgot, the memorizing function in your brain identifies an error. Panic sets in.

When you do this, you experience a heightened awareness to how you sound. This increases the likelihood that you will perceive yourself as making a mistake if you say a sentence or a phrase differently—even if it’s not actually wrong.

I do believe there is value in writing out your narrative beforehand, especially if you need to include specific, precise wording such as technical, legal, or scientific terms. But by memorizing a presentation by rote, you create an additional cognitive burden to add to public speaking and widen your margins for error.

Sticking to a memorized script also causes you to be less connected and engaging, as it reduces the bandwidth you have to adjust and adapt to your audience.

So how do you steer clear of rote memorization while ensuring your speech doesn’t come out as a rambling, unorganized mess?

Draw a map

The key to not blanking out is to first create a comprehensive outline, composed of the major delivery points, in the order that you want to present them.

Having a clear structure to your presentation is critical. Think of it like a map for both you and your audience.

At least three types of outlines can help you here:

  • There’s the traditional outline, where you create an indented, hierarchical listing of your points and provide key phrases or wording.
  • Or you can choose a question-based outline, in which you list questions that spark specific answers in the order you intend to cover your content.
  • For more visual people, there’s also the Illustrated or picture-based outline, for which you can graphically map out your ideas using icons, pictures, and words.

Stand and deliver

Being comfortable in your body plays a big role in how you speak, and in how you remember things. Research has shown that hearing your own voice while using relevant, appropriate gestures from a standing posture improves later recall. So when you practice, stand up, then speak. I encourage web and telephone presenters to stand when practicing, even if they plan to present sitting at a desk, in front of a web cam.

For another technique, try recording yourself and then playing the recording back, listening to your own voice while you stand and walk around.

Be a visionary

Close your eyes and envision your presentation unfolding in a familiar space, such as your home or a favorite hiking path of yours.

As you walk through your presentation, imagine yourself placing different key ideas in specific locations along your imaginary route. Perhaps your catchy introductory line is paired with your front door. Or, the surprising results of a study you’re presenting coincide with that bend in the trail that leads to your favorite sunset view.

By practicing your presentation while imagining moving along your path, you are creating visual aids and signals to more easily recall your points.

Do not remain calm

There’s an obvious reason why most of us feel compelled to memorize: Public speaking makes us nervous. The twist is that when we are nervous and anxious, we are often worse at remembering. And the more you rely on a memorized script or speech, the less likely you are to recall it in your moment of need.

Taking deep breaths and trying to calm down in the moment can help manage speaking anxiety, but it also requires a lot of cognitive effort. It can potentially lead to losing focus.

Research shows that being excited prior to a nerve-wracking task (which again, public speaking is for many of us) can actually enhance performance and confidence.

Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks conducted a number of studies in which she found people who focused on being excited felt and did better on tasks they were set to complete, from solving challenging math problems to singing karaoke. Brooks believes that if we reframe anxiety as excitement, we can trick ourselves into avoiding the negative effects of nervousness.

To flip your inner anxiety dialogue to excitement, you can try some tricks such as identifying something of value you learned, which you now get to share with your audience. 

It can also help to identify some positive outcomes that may result from your presentation, such as procuring funding for a project, or gaining visibility for a job promotion. Visualize yourself being excited about giving your presentation can also help. Starting a day or two before speaking, take three to five minutes in your schedule to close your eyes and imagine your most engaged, excited self, and how you come off when you’re most confident.

By developing a mechanism to help you recall the major points of your presentation, you’re creating a framework that is dynamic and elastic. You can easily take in stride any unplanned turn of events, whether someone asks an unexpected question or a slide projector malfunctions.

So the next time you have a big presentation coming up, don’t forget to remember—but feel free to forget memorizing.