To Memorize or Not to Memorize?

I have a personal bias against memorizing a presentation. As a high school student, I was involved in competitive speaking in the category of Oratorical Declamation. Each contestant had to memorize a section of a famous speech and deliver it before a group of judges. I chose Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech given in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775. I spent many hours memorizing the last portion of the speech. Then in the middle of delivering it at the contest, I had a mental block and could not finish the speech. I was mortified and angry because I had invested so much time in memorizing it.

So I generally avoid memorizing my presentations. I tell my seminar participants and students the same:  don’t memorize your presentation. Speaking from notes will help your delivery to be much more natural and effective.

However, as is the case with most general rules, there are exceptions. Certain parts of a speech will usually make your speech more effective if they are memorized. Here are a few suggestions.

Memorize the opening lines of your presentation. Your language will be specific and concrete to insure that the audience will listen to you. When you get off to a good start, your nervousness lessens and you are on your way to a successful presentation.

Memorize a joke or humorous story you are going to tell. Reading a joke simply does not work. You need to be able to interact with the audience nonverbally as you deliver humor. With a short piece of entertaining material, practice it until it does not sound memorized. Family and friends provide good practice audiences for humorous stories.

In a persuasive speech, memorize the “move to action” step. You should know exactly what you want your audience to do as a result of your presentation. In fact, end with “What I want you to do as a result of my presentation is….” Know those words by heart. You must have confidence in your conclusion and make eye contact with your audience as you deliver this final thought.

Sometimes you should memorize transitions. If you have an abrupt change of direction in the middle of your presentation, you might choose to memorize the transition leading to your next point. Thus the audience will receive proper direction and not be confused.

For example, in my “Be Present When You are Present” speech I need to transition from giving statistics about paying attention to using a historical narrative to illustrate how animals have a sixth sense that helps them pay attention to danger. I use this transitional statement: “You remember the tsunami at the end of 2004 when thousands of people lost their lives in Asian countries….”  Exact wording here is crucial to lead into my point. I have memorized this sentence.

Only under rare circumstances do I recommend memorizing any part of a speech; the above suggestions, however, should make you aware of possibilities for enhancing your effectiveness as a speaker.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Contact Steve today for priority scheduling! (859) 441-6520 or email

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