Thursday, August 13, 2015

Make your talk better with practice and memorization

In What memorizing a TED talk did to my brain, TED 2015 speaker Alexis Madrigal lays out what has been so unusual--and compelling--about the conference for so many of us:
The strangest thing about TED, which is running this week in Vancouver, British Columbia, is not the four-figure price tag or earnest, almost cultish following. It’s that almost everyone on stage has memorized their lines. At most conferences, you get a mix of people reading from PowerPoint decks, using teleprompters, or simply ad-libbing around loose outlines. But not at TED. Here, memory reigns.
Except for this year, when it didn't.

I was struck, watching the talks, at how many speakers walked on stage with notes, notecards, or entire texts. They gripped them like safety blankets, splayed them on top of tables holding demonstration equipment, occasionally wielded paper alongside an iPad, or propped them up on lecterns and music stands. With notes in front of them, we saw the tops of a lot of heads as speakers checked or read the script, or eyes darting down and away from the audience.  Some note-wielding can be edited out of the resulting videos, but then it's the live talks that suffer.

The use of notes had another effect on me. Every time a speaker without notes took the stage, I felt a different energy and spark. Their talks had more immediacy, more risk taken...and to me, that's a big part of what makes TED work for audiences. Using notes dampened that effect.

Mind you, there's not a thing wrong with reading from a text...except that it's not what I've come to expect from TED. As speaker coach at the TEDMED conference, I can attest that memorizing the talks is the most-feared part of the process for speakers. I imagine that, this year, many speakers balked at memorizing. Perhaps it was a case of permitting notes rather than lose the talk. In any case, I wished I hadn't seen them...the notes, not the talks.

Madrigal does a useful description of his process for memorizing, and notes something that good coaches know: Practice and memorization will make your talk better over time. From the article:
All the live practice began to reshape the talk itself. Every difficult phrasing got changed or cut. Other people’s direct quotes were the hardest to memorize, so I cut some of those, too. At one point, I had to recite a series of strange computer-generated phrases, which I would not recommend putting in your memorized talk. Without semantic meaning, strings of words are so, so hard to remember.
Quotes and jokes--which rely on disrupting a pattern, rather than a pattern you can memorize--are both on my list of hard-to-memorize items.

Can you master memorization? It's a wonderful stretch goal for a speaker, an effective way to impress any audience. And it doesn't need to sound rote at all. Here are some of my tips for memorizing talks:
  • Finish the script early...and freeze it: Changes throughout the process or at the last minute are the enemy of the memory. When I'm coaching speakers for TEDMED, TEDx, or TED-style talks, we spend lots of time early in the process getting the speech just right. During the writing process, we work to omit hard-to-remember writing and put in easier-to-say phrases. But after that, we consider the script "frozen" in place. Then we stop making adjustments unless practice tells us we need to do so, to correct a phrase that always prompts a stumble, for example. A bonus: Using 120 words per minute as a guide, by the time the script is done, we know the speech will fit the time limit.
  • Get away from the script as fast as you can: It's ironic to spend that much time on a script and then move away from it, but weaning yourself from the printed page also aids memorization. I recommend making an audio recording of yourself doing your very best reading of the script, with all the emphasis, pausing, and other effects you hope to use. You may need more than one try to get it right. Most of my clients record themselves on their smartphones. You'll hate the recording, but it is the key to script-less-ness.
  • Listen, then try. Repeat: Your speech recording is your new favorite podcast. Listen in your car or on public transportation. Listen when you exercise. Listen while you clean the house. Then, start a pattern of listening, followed by an attempt at delivery. Listen again to hear what you missed, then try again. Some of my clients like to tackle the entire talk, some like to work in sections. Keep listening and trying it on your own.
  • Know your talk structure: Worried about forgetting? Then also memorize your talk structure: The opening, the closing, and the outline of what's in the middle. Or, assign a keyword to each paragraph or section, and learn that. (I recommend choosing the most unusual word in a paragraph, rather than try to summarize the content. It works!) Structure helps you remember what should come next.
  • If you omit, don't quit: There are two kinds of speaker forgetting. One is preferred: You not only forget a line, but don't realize until you're off-stage that you forgot. This type of forgetting doesn't interrupt your flow, and most of the time, if you drop a line, the audience will not notice. The second kind interrupts you as you realize you missed something a line or two back. I coach speakers to keep going if they drop a line mid-delivery, rather than attempt to go back, work it in, and disrupt the flow. This, too, comes easier with practice.
  • Adjust so you don't sound too memorized: Once you have the talk in your head, I usually work to make adjustments--from movement to pauses, a smile, a wink, clever asides, and more--to make sure you don't sound too memorized or rote in your delivery. As President Bill Clinton does, you can plan and rehearse and memorize 85 to 90 percent of your talk, and save a little time to pause, play off the crowd, or spend moments laughing and reacting to the reactions you get. This way, you won't sound like you're reciting, but just talking.
Let me know if you need help creating a talk you can deliver from memory. I've coached more than 100 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx conferences around the world, and scores more to give talks in this style. Email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com to learn more.

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