Tips for Memorizing a Speech Without Sounding Scripted

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Public Speaking for Success" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you remember what you want to say—but avoid stiffly reciting it word-for-word? Is it possible to speak extemporaneously—but not aimlessly?

Dale Carnegie says that, when you know your speech well enough, you can deliver it with conviction, feeling, and authenticity. Knowing it well enough, though, doesn’t mean memorizing every word. He shares three strategies for leveraging your memory for effective public speaking.

Read more to learn his three tips for memorizing a speech in a way that allows you to speak naturally.

Tips for Memorizing a Speech

Once you finalize the structure of your speech, from macro to micro, you can start memorizing it. Carnegie says that this doesn’t necessarily mean learning each exact word and phrase by heart. Rather, you can save time and enhance your delivery by thoroughly learning your argument and then speaking extemporaneously.

Speaking extemporaneously is possible because, Carnegie says, our memories are quite strong when we use the right techniques. He recommends tips for memorizing a speech in a way that will help you deliver it authentically and fluidly.

(Shortform note: Carmine Gallo explains in Talk Like TED that thoroughly rehearsing your speech will free up mental space so that when you’re on stage, you can focus on things such as your stage presence and adapting to the audience rather than struggling to remember your speech. He suggests that in addition to learning your ideas, you should also rehearse your body language, hand gestures, and even the speed at which you talk—190 words per minute is an ideal, conversational pace.)

Tip #1: Create Lasting Impressions 

As a general rule, memories stick best when you get a thorough and vivid impression of what you want to remember. Carnegie advises that you simply focus hard on a mental image, like a blooming flower, until it unfolds in vivid detail. Use all your senses to concentrate and feel, taste, hear, smell, and see the image. 

Say you’re arguing for universal basic income—you might concentrate deeply on an image of the plight of low-wage workers: The pervasive stress, the smells and sounds and sights of low-income housing. Feeling this idea deeply will help you remember it and communicate it clearly to your audience. 

(Shortform note: In Learning How to Learn, Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski explain that multisensory learning works so well because it creates more pathways for your brain to recall a piece of information. For instance, if you practice seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling an idea—such as how waves crash on the shore—you’ll connect that memory to inputs from each sense, thereby creating more synaptic connections and neural pathways in your brain. Then when you want to recall the idea, you’ll have multiple ways to do so.)

Tip #2: Liberally Associate Your Memories 

Once you have a strong image for each of your ideas, begin to weave them together. According to Carnegie, the brain is an associative machine: We create and access memories by linking them together with other memories. So, to further memorize your speech, take those images you created and link them together as a sort of “road trip” through your ideas. Shape the images into a narrative sequence, associating each point with a stop along the way. 

(Shortform note: To help with this associative process, consider developing a memory palace. This practice involves creating a mental image of a place you’re very familiar with and filling it with the details of what you want to remember. To sequence your ideas, you could plot a path between, say, the rooms of a mental image of your childhood house. You’d then fill each room with sights, sounds, and smells that help you to recall the idea, practice recalling each room, and then practice moving through that sequence of memories.)

Tip #3: Practice by Repetition 

Once you’ve created strong impressions and linked them together, practice recalling those memories. Practice by repetition is like walking the same path until it becomes well-worn and clear of obstructions. However, don’t practice every day—instead, practice in intervals of a few days, and increase the gaps as time goes on. Studies have found that this strengthens memories to the same degree as daily practice in around half the time. 

(Shortform note: This method of recalling things at increasing intervals, known today as spaced repetition, has its roots in the research of 19th-century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Specifically, Ebbinghaus discovered the “forgetting curve,” or the fact that new memories decay along an exponential curve—we tend to forget new details all at once, then more slowly as time goes on. However, we better remember things that we practice recalling. The point of spaced repetition, then, is to practice recalling new pieces of information at key points along the forgetting curve. This gradually produces strong memories that decay more slowly and with less need for continuous recall practice.)

Lastly, Carnegie recommends combining the above techniques to create a mental narrative that traces the path of your speech. To do this, number each point in your speech (for instance, one to seven). Then, create a strong mental image for each number. Link those images to each corresponding point, then string them together in a mental story based on your images. Rehearse that story, and you’ll recall your points easily and in order.

(Shortform note: To aid in this process, you could use spaced repetition software (SRS). One of the most popular is Anki, a free and open-source flashcard program. Try creating flashcards to associate each point in your speech with the corresponding mental image, with the point on one side and the image to recall on the other. Then, recall and strengthen those images at each review opportunity. Start at least a week prior to your speech, and you’ll have a much easier time recalling the structure of your speech, as Carnegie suggests doing.)

Tips for Memorizing a Speech Without Sounding Scripted

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  • Why public speaking is one of the most important skills to have
  • How to overcome the fear of public speaking and adopt poise
  • How to research, write, and deliver a memorable speech

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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