I am frequently asked whether it is better to memorize a speech or attempt to speak extemporaneously when giving a business presentation. It’s certainly better to memorize a speech than to read a speech. But why would you want to give a speech? What does a speech have to do with a business presentation?
If you consider all the synonyms offered by Google for a “speech” — talk, address, lecture, discourse, oration, disquisition, peroration, deliverance, presentation, sermon, homily, monologue, soliloquy, spiel — you will recognize that most of them have little to do with, and in fact work against, the definition or spirit of a business presentation.
You are not giving a speech. You are giving a business presentation. And while a truly great speech can be inspiring to large audiences, most public speakers settle for an entertaining speech. When giving a business presentation, you are not there to entertain. You have work to do. Your objective is to not only provide information that the audience needs to make decisions, via a live event, it is to reach your audience, transform their thinking and move them to immediate action. That requires direct engagement with the audience.
The problem with speeches
A speech becomes relatively fixed the moment you begin to deliver it. When you give a memorized speech you don’t want distractions or interference from the audience because they can throw you off; and that leads to less audience engagement. All concentration goes to delivering the speech.
There is no role for the audience in a speech (other than call and response in a political speech or religious sermon, and laughter in a toast.) The audience is not invited to actively participate as equals, they are requested to sit back, LISTEN TO THE SPEECH and follow these prompts if there are any. This does not work for a business audience.
If you are going to memorize a speech it means first, you have to write a speech. Writing speeches takes time and memorization takes time and lots of practice. Speeches follow their own structure and flow and do not easily conform to a presentation agenda or narrative. That can also make them more difficult to memorize and execute in the context of the presentation.
A memorized speech can easily sound canned. Spontaneity seems forced. The presenter’s voice starts to sound like a recording which makes it easier for the audience to ignore. Remember that even actors who memorize scripts are not giving a non-stop speech. Reciting lines is only a relatively small part of what actors do. When they are on stage, good actors are listening and watching and reacting before they are speaking.
Don’t memorize a speech
So, here's some advice. Don’t memorize a speech. Memorize an objective; one or two simple declarative sentences: (1) what you want the audience to know, and (2) why is it important for them to know it. Practice articulating that objective. Tell the audience what you need them to see, understand and do. And then tell them what the benefits will be to them and the company if they take action based on that understanding. That’s all you need to memorize. That becomes your theme and melody. The rest is just improvisation and variations on that theme:
- Offer three good reasons why they need to know what it is you want them to know.
- Provide three good reasons why it would be a good thing for the audience to do what it is you want them to do.
The rest of the time, you should be listening, watching and reacting to the audience. Are they getting the message?
How will you remember everything you need to say?
When I tell presenters not to write and memorize a speech, they invariably ask if they can then use notes. Sure. But here’s how:
- I know you want to stand behind a computer screen at the podium and use the Notes function in PowerPoint. Don’t. The only thing worse than giving a speech is STANDING BEHIND A PODIUM and reading notes off a computer.
- Some of you want to use note cards. Perfectly fine. Holding note cards can calm your hands like holding a little security blanket. But don’t read off the cards. Just quickly glance down at notes on the cards as needed.
- It is also perfectly fine to look at your slides on the screen. Don’t stand with your back to the audience reading them aloud, just quickly glance up to see where you are and then turn immediately back to face the audience. The slides ARE your notes.
- If you need to read a quote or remember a couple of large numbers, it is O.K. to read them off of note cards or off the slide, because YOU WANT TO BE SURE TO GET THEM RIGHT.
The words will come. If you are ever at a loss for words just repeat your basic melody and theme. If you leave something out, the audience will ask.
Finally, you can also use space and movement as mnemonic devices. Map the points you want to make to parts of the room. When you turn stage right, tell them what they need to know about finance. When you go stage left, tell them what they need to know about marketing. Make each of three fingers on your right hand one of the three reasons why the finances are what they are. The three fingers on your left hand are three reasons why marketing works the way it does.
So don’t write and memorize a speech. Remember your objective. Speak to the audience. Share information with them. That is the experience we are all looking for.
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