The harsh fact is that if you’re going to be a FANTASTIC speaker or a PROFESSIONAL speaker, you MUST memorize your speech, period. For some people, learning that much material looks daunting if not impossible. Some think they can memorize a passage by reading it over and over until it imprints itself in their minds. Personally, I think that’s the most ineffective and inefficient way to memorize, because you’re avoiding the real work of memorizing and actually slowing down the process.
My technique—which I call Learning Blind—is simple: I learn the first two lines, put the page down, and recite the two lines at least twice without a stumble. I learn the next two lines, put the page down, and recite all four lines until I’ve got them down cold. When I’m reciting the lines, I NEVER LOOK at the page, and make myself start over if I stumble even for an instant. Since I start from the first line every time, by the time I get to lines 20 and 21, I’ve repeated the first two lines at least 40 times and they’re seared into my memory. By that time I’m speeding through the first eight or ten lines because I don’t have to even think about them anymore. My mouth just goes into autopilot and the “muscle memory” kicks in.
If you’re not familiar with muscle memory, it’s when your body takes over for your brain after you’ve repeated an action so many times that it’s automatic. For me, typing is an example. An accomplished guitarist or pianist doesn’t have to think about making a “G” chord—their fingers are on autopilot.
You use muscles to move your mouth, too; and after you repeat something enough times, your mouth forms the words automatically. Ever have to sing a song to remember the next line? Linking melody with lyrics is using muscle memory.
Now, it’s impractical when you’re learning your keynote to keep starting at the first line until you’ve learned your entire speech. You memorize “chunks” and then link them together like a train. For example, you might learn your Opening, The Rowboat Story, Your Mother’s Advice, The Diving Lesson, etc. When you’ve got your Opening firmly in your muscle memory, move on to The Rowboat Story. When you’ve got it imprinted, do a refresher run of your Opening, then move to the next chunk.
Mnemonic linking technique: A mnemonic device is any learning technique that helps you retain information. The alphabet song is a classic example, as is the old trick of putting your fists side by side and touching the knuckles and valleys to remember the number of days in each month.
The technique I use to memorize what “chunk” comes next is to link the end of the previous chunk to the beginning of the next one. As a comedian, I have to memorize the order of the bits I’m going to do in a given set so there’s no awkward pause while I try to remember what comes next. Say I want my “Novocaine Nightmare” dental bit to follow my “Cialis” bit. At the end of the latter I list several side effects, finishing with, “Consult a physician if you develop…antlers!” It’s easy to remember that antlers are “boney things,” and teeth are, too; so I segue easily into the “Novacaine Nightmare” story about having a crown put in.
You can make up ridiculous images—sometimes the more bizarre the better—to help you remember what comes next. I tell a story about my Aunt Myrlene that ends with the line, “For the fourth time, yes!” Being a baseball fan, I know that the fourth batter is the cleanup hitter, which reminds me of the next story, when I had to clean up after a vacuum cleaner bag exploded. A stretch? Maybe. But it works for me, and that’s all that matters!