To Memorize or Not to Memorize

Speaker A: In the middle of giving a spectacular speech, he suddenly stops talking, his face looking blank, his hands shaking nervously.

Speaker B: He doesn't know when to stop. He seems to keep talking and talking and talking long beyond anyone is listening and even when he finishes, it feels like all of that could have been said in one min instead of ten.

Speaker C: Perfect speech, perfect words, robotic performance. It just feels like he was speaking what he was supposed to speak without any emotion.

Have you ever seen any of the above speakers?

During my trainings and in toastmasters, quite often I get this question, should we memorize our speeches or not?

To Memorize or Not to Memorize that is the question.

There are obvious drawbacks to both options.

Speaker A had memorized his speech and it was going perfectly, until he forgot what comes next. Trembling Hands, Lost Opportunity, Ruined Reputation.

Speaker B had not memorized his speech and he just didn’t know when to finish. Bored Audience, Lost Opportunity, Ruined Reputation.

Speaker C had also memorized his speech and he managed to deliver it perfectly. No words forgotten, no argument unsaid. Yet, the speaker sounded unnatural, because instead of focusing on what he was saying, he was thinking about what comes next. Distrustful Audience, Lost Opportunity, Ruined Reputation.

Instead of asking the question “To Memorize or Not to Memorize”, what you should be asking is “To Familiarize or To Internalize”.


Familiarizing is when instead of writing your speech word for word, you write down only the main points. Then start rehearsing.

Rehearse it in your living room, rehearse it in front of mirror, rehearse it in front of a friend or rehearse it in front of your mom. Every time you will do, the speech will evolve a bit. After few attempts it will become mature. By this time, you won’t remember everything word by word, but you will remember your content and how to explain it. You will have familiarized your speech.

The only exception to this rule, should be the opening and closing, as you would want to prepare them as perfectly as possible and memorizing couple of sentences is much easier than an hour-long presentation.

Familiarizing has obvious advantages, you are not going to be worrying about what comes next, because you only need to memorize the main points. Rest just comes naturally as you know your content. You will look more natural, more authoritative, more engaging to your audience.

Another advantage is preparation time. After rehearsing few times, you will remember your content well enough to give an effective speech.

There is one small disadvantage though. Since you won’t write or memorize everything word by word, it will be very difficult to add amazing language in your speech on the go. Unless you are a gifted speaker, most of us must really make an effort to put in rhetorical devices, captivating stories or humor in our speeches. Which means to deliver them effectively, we need to memorize them well, which we won’t do in this case.

This is fine for most speeches. In normal life, we get asked to speak at rather short notice and when that happens, putting our energies into writing a great speech with amazing rhetorical devices and spectacular stories will only lead to situation of Speaker A or Speaker C and just winging it will lead to situation of Speaker B.

Instead if we focus more time on familiarizing ourselves fully with our content, our talking points, we will be able to deliver an effective speech with full confidence in an authentic way.


Familiarizing will work on most occasions, but there will be times, when crafting a speech that will be remembered by audience for ages is needed. Think Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”, of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, or Obama’s “Yes We Can”. Or when topic is sensitive enough to require precise words. These kinds of speeches require a lot of time and patience to perfect each sentence. You will need to put rhetorical devices, you will need to tell captivating stories, you will need to add humor. All of which takes time.

But not only it takes time to write such a speech, it takes even more time to memorize it. There is one simple solution. Not memorize. Read from paper. But that is, a challenge in itself. Politicians spend years perfecting the art of looking natural while reading from teleprompter or a piece of paper. We don’t have that luxury.

Our only option is to internalize this speech. Not memorize, internalize.

If you were to do an experiment, of telling the same speech every day to your friend, on first few days, you would sound very natural, like yourself albeit you will forget a word or sentence here and there and say some parts as improvised. But as the days would progress, your mistakes would go to zero, but your naturalness, your authenticity will also go to zero. At this point, you will not make any mistake, but you won’t sound like yourself either. You will sound like Speaker C.

TED curator, Chris Anderson in his book calls this stage as uncanny valley. Which is a term taken from computer animations. Where something looks almost real, but you get this nagging feeling at the back of your head that something is wrong with it.

Unfortunately, for most of us, we stop rehearsing right when we are in the middle of this uncanny valley. Because, we think, we are now able to do our speech word by word perfectly. Result, we sound like a robot. Why? Because mentally, we are NOT focused on what we are saying, but on what we have to say next. Complete disconnect between our words and our mind.

Solution, keep rehearsing. Keep rehearsing to the point where, doing this speech just becomes automatic. Until the point, you can do it perfectly, while hanging upside down. Only then, you will have internalized the speech and you will not be thinking about what comes next. You will be in the moment, you will be focused on your audience and you won't stumble on what to say next. You will deliver an effective, confident speech and rock the audience.

To show all this process, I created this small graph.


So next time you are preparing a speech, ask yourself, if you have time to internalize the speech? If not, instead go with familiarizing the speech option.


  1. Asfandyar Nasim
    7 August 2018

    Very well written .. !!

    1. Zain
      7 August 2018

      Thank you Asfand.

  2. […] I had unfortunately gone to the “Uncanny Valley”, which is the worst thing that can happen as a speaker in a contest. Read more about the Uncanny valley in my earlier blog post here. […]


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