Updated: Mar 2
Being confident to speak publicly from memory is an empowering skill. It isn’t hard to memorise long speeches, once you know how.
Remembering speeches or a block of writing simply requires the use of a few well-known memory techniques. In this blog we are going to look at how you go about giving a kick-arse speech, without notes or flash cards. And no, you don’t have to go over the speech endlessly, rote learning it. And yes, that is how you spell arse.
The techniques can be used for speeches and also for any prose you may want to learn, such as your favourite poetry, text or quotes for an exam. The basic methods are not new, either - Roman senators used them, back in the day. They worked for Cicero, why not you?
Overview of the method I use to remember a speech
Its actually very simple – I walk the talk. I use images and stories that I walk through as the speech is delivered.
Identify main headings and make images and locations to represent them, so you can learn the outline of the speech.
Go back and add visual detail and stories to each main heading to remember its sub points and key words of the text.
Make an impromptu ‘memory palace’ to locate each image in order, to avoid ‘mental blanks’ while speaking.
To recall the speech simply walk through the palace and describe each image and story. It is a lot like walking through an art gallery looking at each picture in turn, and each one is a thousand words. But it's more interesting, unless you totally dig art galleries.
This is not word for word memorisation. We are ‘describing the story of the picture’ for each key point. After revision I find I do tend to learn the text nearly word for word anyway. If I keep missing one important word I add add it by simply adjusting my ‘image’ until the picture I see conjures up the correct word. Don’t worry if this seems abstract at this point, read on.
Of course practice makes perfect. Learning a speech is a great opportunity to test the patience of your friends and family.
Why is remembering a speech so valuable?
It makes you confident, and your presentation will be so much better.
I used to have a horrific and unfounded fear of public speaking. Even the thought of speaking in front of a group of people would make my heart beat fast and my palms would sweat like a teenage boy at a swimsuit party. So overwhelming was this fear that I rejected several excellent opportunities. Just in case I stuffed up. I wasn’t frightened of writing speeches, only giving them.
Now public speaking is one of my favourite things to do. I don’t find it stressful and quite look forward to it, seeking out opportunities to give talks. What made this difference?
Once I know that I can remember everything in my speech I feel empowered. Knowing the words makes all the difference.
Now when I am asked to give a talk, I spend the bulk of my time writing the speech to make sure it says what I want, because content is the key. Then I use the simple techniques below to learn the talk. A 20 min talk takes me no more than two hours to remember entirely, every point ready to deliver. And the method I use means the speech isn’t delivered in a wooden ‘reading voice’.
Even months after I have delivered a talk, with just a quick revision I am able to deliver the same 20-minute speech, with the same level of confidence as the day first presented. This is incredibly useful.
A bonus of learning speeches in this way is that the visuals and stories behind the words encourages lots of body language and movement across the stage. This is good for public speaking - check out my video below showing what I am thinking as I move.
Detailed how-to guide
OK, so I will assume you have whipped up a well-crafted talk or have some text you want to learn. Have a printed copy of it in front of you now, along with a pen.
Step One – Mark the headings
Read through your talk/text and get an idea for what it says and its structure overall. Make notes on the text where it moves from one main point to another. Jot down a key heading that describes what the upcoming text is about. This heading is not to read out, but just a mental tag.
Step Two – Add an image and location to each heading
Create a strong visual image that represents each heading. Then, and this is important, clearly place each image in a location. Do this for every key heading, in order.
For an example let's use a TEDx talk I gave titled Memory Fit - How I learnt to exercise my memory.
My first key heading is 'Dinner party', as the talk starts with me at a dinner party three years ago. So for my image I visualised people sitting around eating and drinking convivially. I used my outdoor table as the location.
The second key heading is "My memory today". It refers to several sentences discussing how my memory has improved and that I hold several Australian memory records.
In my image I am standing proudly flexing my muscles like I am strong mentally, while holding out my memory medals. For the location, note that the previous heading has left me at my outdoor dinner table. Since my BBQ is right there next to me I climb on top of the BBQ for my next location. My guests look a little startled, but hey it’s my barbie and I’ll stand on it if I want to.
The images should be as vibrant and interesting as possible. Make it move, add sound and smell, have fun with it. My guide How to remember a list of words has more detail on this.
Sometimes the location is intuitive - it makes sense to have a dinner party around an outdoor table. At other times you will need to come up with a location that is less obvious, but as long as it makes sense to you it will work. If a location needs to be somewhere far away because that makes sense to your image, this is also fine. Just go right there like magic. Let’s say Sweden was my next logical place. I would literally imagine jumping up high and landing in Sweden. This giant leap somehow makes sense to me, because Australia is at the bottom of the globe and I jump up to Sweden near the top. Remember, this is my reality in my head, where the physics of gravity, vacuum and atmospheric re-entry are not a problem for empowered sisters.
Just get creative and if it makes sense to you it usually works.
Step Three – Link the heading locations
Once you have an image and location for every key heading, re-read the key headings while reviewing the sequence of locations. This is building a Memory Palace, a place where you walk through images in a sequence. An example is your home.
For the brief example I have used you would visualise your dinner table with a party going on and then jump on top of the BBQ. Focus on the locations and how you get to the next one.
Walk through all of your key headings and their locations in sequence a couple of times until you know the journey. If you find this step hard at first, read How to make and use Memory Palaces.
Now do same without looking at your text.
If you find your are forgetting some steps – say the leap onto the BBQ - simply invent some reason to explain the sequence. The flambé set the tablecloth on fire and you had to leap to safety! You don’t need to visualise this extra story, just make up a reason during revision. Going through that thought process once is normally enough for me to ensure on the next revision I go naturally from the dinner table to the BBQ (without having to see the smoke etc). Our minds are remarkably good at remembering pathways travelled, so with a good reason for moving to the next location you will remember it without having to revisit the logic you created the first time.
Step Four – Mark the detail
The next step is to go back over your entire written text and underline key words that you need to say in the speech.
For example, here is the detail I underlined for the first key heading in my TEDx presentation, 'Dinner Party'. I have underlined the words that I wanted to say.
Three years ago if you invited me to a big dinner party, let’s say 10 people, I wouldn’t have remembered the names of nearly anyone around the table. I wouldn’t have remembered the facts from the interesting stories they told, and so if I wanted to retell any of those stories, I kind of couldn’t without those credible details. And I really didn’t try to remember any of it. Because I knew I had no chance.
I, like many of us, had an average memory.
Fast forward to today… and it moves into the second key heading, 'My Memory Today'.
Grab your speech now and underline the key words you must remember for just your first heading.
Step Five – Add images in a story for the detail
With our key words now identified for the first heading we can go back and add detail images to them in a story, in order. The easiest approach is to add detailed images for one sentence at a time, then revise that sentence. Or revise halfway through for longer sentences.
Here you can choose if you want to know the speech word for word or with allow it to slightly change each time you speak.
Add detail images Refer to the example underlined speech above. Originally I just visualised a dinner party for the first key heading. But now I look closer and see that because it was three years ago, I did not have my new tableware. I then saw it was a big dinner party - there were 4 of us on one side of the table, 4 opposite and one at each end. A party of 10 people.
Revise I then re-read this first half sentence while imagining this new picture with added details. Then I look away from the page and say out loud the first line while visualising the images.
Add detail images
Next, I see myself sitting at the table on of the long sides with 3 others I am rubbing my head a bit flustered because I did not know anyone’s name. Someone at the end of the table is telling an interesting story and I laugh along with the others while thinking “I won’t be able to remember the details” and so couldn’t re-tell any of it. I sip my wine and decide not to even try to remember any of it, because I know I have no chance.
Again, I repeat seeing this image while re-reading the text. I then close my eyes and say the sentences again while reliving the visual story.
Add detail images
Finally, I see myself looking around the table and noticing that perhaps others also were not remembering these things, I see myself thinking I have an average memory, like many people. As I visualise ‘fast forward to today’ I see a 1980’s cassette tape (now I’m showing my age) being fast forwarded while moving sideways to my next location. And we are suddenly on top of that BBQ.
The same re-read and then test.
Repetition and checking where you deviated from the script will reveal where you miss any important words. Simply add a strong image for that word into the correct part of the story.
Step Six – Revise this heading in detail
Now you have finished adding images for all sub points for this heading, we want to see how much we can remember of the full first heading story and its key words. This will firm up what you have learned and offer a chance to add in any missing detail.
Close your eyes and visualise that heading’s entire story and say as much of the text as possible. Then read the text again to find missing words or where you deviate from the text. Add images or make them stronger as needed. Repeat.
Step Seven – Link the headings
Once you are happy with the detail of your first heading go back to your text and repeat step 4, 5 and 6 for all of your remaining headings. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Step seven is to now confirm that each heading image in its location links well to the next heading image and location. Making these links strong in your story stops you going blank in the middle of your talk.
Close your eyes and walk through your whole speech, speaking out loud, while journeying through the locations and stories. Do you get stuck remembering the next location at any point? If you do, stop and repeatedly mentally walk from the previous heading to the next until it is clear. Add supporting stories for the transition if needed.
Step Eight – Walk the talk
Now the text is all mapped out the final step is just revision of your story.
As you revise ensure you strongly visualise the stories and images. The speech itself is simply you describing what you see.
Don’t be afraid to use body language to help describe what your mental images as you talk. Moving and gesturing energises a speech and captures attention.
This revision should include standing and walking as you will when you give the talk, moving on the stage as you move to the next location in your head. This is usually a few steps in the direction of your next location as you are finishing off the last line of your previous location But don't be afraid to stride entirely across the stage - it's your moment, after all. Changing your position helps you know what comes next (as you get to know the pathway traveled) and also looks good, like you are a calm natural speaker.
Practicing pathways when rehearsing a speech has saved my arse a number of times during the real talk. When the lights are on you and the crowds are staring it's natural to feel nervous, and its easy to lose wherze you are up to in the text. When this happens I calmly think “Where am I?”and the location and story bring it back right away. And it is OK to pause while you speak - it looks natural.
The most amazing aspect of learning a speech this way is how confidently you recall the detail. You will not forget a lot of what you learned the very next day, like most of us do with rote learning. Just journey through the locations and see the stories.
Test your speech the next day without the text and review the text afterwards, checking for words that you missed or added. Adjust the images as needed. When smooth, practice your delivery on your colleagues, friends and family and invite constructive criticism. Adjust and add to the stories with any changes you make.
Within a couple of days you should be feeling confident and word perfect!
Time to walk the talk.