How to: Memorise a 5 Minute Speech

Got a speech coming up? Pitching an idea at work? Class presentation? Oscar acceptance? I’ve got a few tips for memorizing your text in double-quick time that might just come in handy.

Last Wednesday, I was booked to give a five minute speech at Phoenix Speakers as part of the Competent Communicator award. This was Project 5: Your Body Speaks, 5–7 minutes on whatever I wanted, with an emphasis on body language, expression and gesture. Notes were not an option if I wanted to get this right, but luckily I had a plan!

In a nutshell, the key to quick memorization (without fancy gimmicks) is repetition. You’ll be surprised how quickly words stick with you when you run through them a few times.

Step 1: Write your speech

This might seem obvious to some, but you really do need to have a plan. I know plenty of people at work who just elaborate on some PowerPoint slides they wrote the day before, but this often seems unpolished and leads to lots of umms and aahs. The most confident sounding people will always know exactly what they want to get across and the order in which they want to do it.

Even at this point, you can do a few things to aid your memory. Incorporate stories or ideas from your own life, things you might have told people already. Include phrases you use every day. Any snippets you are already familiar with will already be very easy to recall. In my case, I based my speech around a story from last year, segments of which I’ve recounted many times since.

Most importantly at this stage is formatting. I always write speeches out with at most one phrase per line, no long paragraphs, with a blank line separating each phrase. I find that 2 pages at 12pt will give you a 5 minute speech. This format will make it much easier to keep track of where you are during the next steps.

Step 2: First three times through

Now it’s time to start rehearsing! Print your speech out and lay it on a table so you can see it all at once. Then run through your speech in full a few times, don’t worry if you make mistakes along the way. Be sure to time yourself to make sure you’ve got the right amount of content. For my recent speech, I practiced with Speaker Alert to keep track of time, with colour alerts only (no time display) so I wasn’t too distracted.

The first few times through the speech will allow you to refine it, cut out bits you don’t need and adjust phrasing as needed to fit the spoken works. Sentences that sound fine in your head might seem odd when spoken aloud, or even worse, they could be subtle tongue twisters that could trip you up and ruin the flow of your speech. I’ll typically spend a few minutes editing after each of the first three times through the speech.

Step 3: Take a break

After honing your speech to it’s performable best, you’ve earned a rest. I usually call it a night at this point. You might feel like you’ve not taken much in, but it’s amazing how quickly these things can stick. With last week’s speech, I found myself able to recite most of the first page the next morning in the shower.

Step 4: Rehearse until it’s in

Now you just need to keep practicing. Run through and time your speech as much as you can stand, and each time, see if you can step away from your notes a bit. If you physically separate yourself from your notes, you’re only going to be looking when you really need them.

Your mileage may vary, but I find that once I’ve run through a speech 10 times (including the initial 3 for editing), it’s pretty much in there. For the “body speaks” project, I was able to really start focusing on my movement and expression over the words after about the 5th or 6th run.

Once you’re note free, don’t feel you need to stop. Have a congratulatory cup of tea, by all means, but if you’ve got the time, a bit more rehearsal can’t hurt. A wise person once said: “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong”.

They weren’t wise enough to make sure they were attributed for the quote, but still, it’s good advice.

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