Memorize! Don't memorize!
As a professional speaker and speaker coach, I often get questions around memorization of keynotes; what to memorize, to which extent, and how to do it. There is no one single answer to any of these questions. However, based on both literature, insight into how the human brain works, and my own practical experience, I will share some recommendations. Personally, I normally do not memorize the complete keynote. The only time I have done that, was the Nordic Business Forum Speaker Contest 2022. I memorized my 12-minute keynote down to every single word, and rehearsed it about 50 times. In total, I probably spent somewhere in the range of 150-200 hours preparing for this delivery, including research, writing, and visuals. My final keynote can be found here. We had 12 minutes each, which is brutally short, hence the need to polish every single word. In all other situations, I memorize the intro and the conclusion, and the sequence of my slides/content blocks. I'll describe this method below.
It's not about you, it's about your audience.
Whichever way you choose, it's not about you, it's about your audience. This means that you need to honour the time and attention of the people in front of you. A very basic recommendation is to never read your notes on stage. If you plan to read your notes, please do your audience the favour of sending them the material instead. The worst experience I have ever had as an audience in this respect was a speaker reading her notes from a smartphone. As member of the audience, I felt cheated and disrespected.
So what can and should you do, then? Let's start with WHEN and WHAT to memorize. Basically, the shorter the talk, the more you need to memorize. TED-style talks, like the speaker contest final, are typically 12-18 minutes, and the time limit is pretty absolute. In these situations, there is very limited room for ad hoc delivery, which means you need to do a lot of memorization and rehearsals. For longer talks, lecture style, in the range of 30-45 minutes, you should aim to memorize and rehearse at least the introduction and the ending, as your ability to deliver these with top notch quality will have significant impact on the overall experience of listening to your talk. For workshop style talks and longer lectures, memorization is in general less important. In practice, this means that the shorter the talk, the more work. Keep that in mind next time you negotiate your fee! (or when you book a speaker…) Next step is HOW to memorize. First of all, you need to have a thought-through structure for your storyline. I recently wrote an article on that specific topic. Provided that you have this structure in place, you can create a mind-map of your content. Memories consist of visual, auditive, and kinesthetic components. Visual means images, auditive means sound and structure, and kinesthetic means touch and feel. When creating a mind-map, we utilize these modes of mental representation. For simplicity in this article I will focus on the visual representation, but you can easily exchange the mode of representation if auditive or kinesthetic makes more sense for you. Step 1: Divide your content into blocks. Each block should represent one topic or line of reasoning, so that when you remember the block you know what's in it.
Step 2: For each block, create a visual memory card that represents that block. The visual memory card is an image that is easy for you to retrieve, and represents meaning to you. If you can add funny details and moving components that make sense to you and help you remember more details, that's great. This is how the memory masters do it. Never mind if it looks silly, it's only in your head!
Step 3: Create a storyline circle, where you place the memory cards in the right sequence according to your storyline.
Step 4: Memorize the sequence of the memory cards and the transition between these. If you need to use some kind of support, use cue cards with single keywords on. After a while, you will experience that these cue cards are not needed, because you already have everything you need in your head.
Step 5: If you need to memorize every word, you need to dedicate the time to repeat the content word by word many times that you can do it without thinking in situations where you are distracted by other things. After a while, you will be able to connect the memorized words to the memory cards. Be patient. Memorization of text is time consuming, in particular if you are not used to it. The first four steps I always do. The fifth step I only do for very special occacions, like the speaker contest. In most cases we use some kind of visual support, e.g. Power Point slides. I create my slides so that the slides match my content blocks in step 1, 2, and 3. The effect is that I know the sequence of slides by heart, and can run the entire presentasion with my back to the screen. If I get stuck, any slide serves as a remider of the relevant content block. I recently worked with a CEO of a listed company. He doesn't really like publick speaking, and during covid he had to do a lot of presentations on video, which he hates even more. Sounds familiar? To survive these ordeals, he used to read the text from a teleprompter. He is a bit dyslexic, which meant that he really had to focus intently on the words streaming past his eyes on the telepromter. The effect was that he always looked angry and stressed on camera, and the words came out of his mouth as a river of words without purpose. After some hours of work together, he was able to get rid of the telepromter, deliver the message credibly as his own and with more impact, with a smile.
Practice makes perfect.
Practice makes perfect. The first time you do it as described above, you are likely to feel that it takes you more time than your old way of doing things. I know for sure the CEO felt that way! Well, that's the process of learning new skills and habits. You will get there! The CEO definitely did. Best of luck! And feel free to reach out for more tips and tools!