Yes or No: Should You Memorize Your Presentations?
Imagine you’re on a first date.
You ask your date what he or she does for a living, and your date responds by speaking for the next three minutes with a perfect monologue that was clearly rehearsed and memorized.
You’d think that’s a little weird, right?
That leads to a follow-up question: Why is that weird? In part, it’s because the memorization robs any spontaneity from the moment, which creates a feeling that your date is being inauthentic. At the very least, it’s clear that your date isn’t truly experiencing the date in the moment with you.
That leads to a third and final question: When people memorize their presentations word-for-word, is that any less strange?
Before answering that question, let me offer a narrow disclaimer. A small number of people are able to both memorize a presentation and deliver it with an authentic audience connection. But that’s a rare gift that few people can pull off well. (And yes, stage actors memorize their lines, but the exchange between actor and audience is different than the exchange between speaker and audience.)
Why Do People Memorize?
People often memorize their presentations because they think doing so conveys a sense of polish to the audience. In some cases, that’s true. Seasoned speakers who deliver the same presentation day after day can often deliver it without notes. But seasoned speakers know that in most situations, it’s far better to internalize content (allowing the specific words to come to them in the moment, which more closely resembles real-life conversation) than it is to memorize content (which is reminiscent of a stage play, in which the audience has no speaking role).
In other cases, they think it gives them a sense of control. But audiences generally don’t respond well to tightly wound speakers—they prefer speakers who show a piece of themselves, something comic Billy Crystal calls “leaving a tip.”
The Problem With Memorization
I can almost always tell when one of our trainees has memorized their presentation. So can the audience. It’s easy to spot that they’re searching for their next words—and they’re so busy wracking their brains for the next line that they’re no longer present with the people in the room.
Plus, for the vast majority of speakers, the cost-benefit ratio of memorizing their script is all wrong. Whereas the audience won’t deduct points from speakers who occasionally glance at their notes, they will deduct points from speakers who seem overly rehearsed—or who forget their next line and go blank.
There’s nothing wrong with using notes. Ideally, you’ll reduce them to just a few bullets that serve as memory triggers. When you need to look at one, all you need to do is pause, look down, see your next bullet, look back up, and begin speaking again.
Save memorization for Broadway actors and speaking circuit pros. For the vast majority of the presentations you’ll ever deliver, no one will mind if you glance at notes once in a while.