(8m reading time)

We’ve covered how to build most of the auditory and visual foundations you’ll need to help you memorize a talk. These tools have helped me absorb lengthy and complex presentations. Let’s find out how.

Schedule It

Your calendar is a critical tool for memorization success.

First things first! With my prep pages at the ready, I crack open my calendar. I look at my schedule, and I set aside blocks of time between the current day and the day of my talk to memorize my slides. I aim to be done memorizing at least a day or two before my talk so I can rehearse the whole thing in order.

Does memorizing really need scheduling? Yes, trust me here. As much as you may want to dive in to memorizing right away, you first need to know how much time you have. The amount of time you can earmark for memorizing will affect your approach.

With practice you’ll learn how long it takes you to memorize a given number of words. I have learned that it takes me about 13 seconds per word, max. If you’re not sure what your rate is, use mine to start. Once you begin memorizing, time yourself to develop your own seconds-per-word rate.

So if I have to memorize 2,700 words I know I need to set aside 10 hours to do so.

The hell you say?

Yes, it’s true. The secret to a great talk (like the secret to a healthy body) is there is no secret. It takes time to memorize stuff. Good speakers factor memorization time into their schedules.

I know it’s frustrating to have already done so much work building the presentation content to have to turn around and spend nearly as long jamming it into your head. I too have wished to upload information directly to my brain à la The Matrix. Until our machine overlords arrive, however, we have to make peace with spending some extra time. On the bright side, you may find with practice your memorization speed gets faster.

I set aside an hour at a time to memorize. Much longer than that and my brain (and voice!) gets tired. And I give myself at least an hour’s break between memorization sessions.

If you’re cramming you can probably do several memorization sessions per day. If you’ve got enough time you can memorize just once per day or every other day. But don’t drag out the memorization period for too long–remember you may need time to rehearse after you’re done memorizing! I target leaving myself a day or more of extra time for just this purpose.

Deal with a Time Deficit

After calculating your memorization time and looking at your calendar, you may discover that no matter how you rearrange your schedule you simply won’t have enough time to memorize your whole talk. That’s okay! The good news is you found out before getting started, so you can deal with it.

There are many options available for handling a memorization time deficit. In the next post in this series I will go in-depth into an approach you can use to get out of memorizing the bottom sheets of your prep pages stack. Remember those sheets? They hold the friendliest, easiest parts of your talk–the ones where you can get by just winging it. This is my go-to method when I’m in this situation, so it’s worth checking out.

Here are other ways to fix your memorization time deficit:

  • Shorten your talk. I know it’s painful to think about cutting back your wonderful content, but what good is it to your audience if you fumble through it? Better to concentrate on delivering the most important pieces with confidence.
  • Find a co-presenter. Many hands make light work, right? If it’s appropriate consider asking someone else to cover part of your talk. Maybe give them the beginning, or the end, or trade back-and-forth with them during the presentation. If you’re willing to get creative (and have awesome friends or colleagues), this can be an effective approach.
  • Push back the presentation date. Not my favorite fix, as stakeholders may feel disappointed and hard academic or professional deadlines can make it untenable. However, if you’ve got scheduling flexibility, better to deliver a crisp, confident presentation a few days later than to deliver a messy, nervous talk on the original date.

The most important part of addressing a memorization time deficit is to confront it as soon as possible. The sooner you decide you need to adjust your strategy, the more likely the change will succeed. Don’t call your colleague the day before your big talk and try to cash in a favor, and don’t decide just hours before your presentation that you have to condense a bunch of your slides! This creates unnecessary stress for you (and possibly others) and doesn’t jive with a calm, confident, successful presentation.

Make a Necklace

Now you’ve got your talk tweaked (if needed) and sessions scheduled, it’s time to memorize! At the start of your session grab one sheet off the top of your prep pages. Your goal for this session is to memorize this sheet. My fool-proof memorization technique is straightforward–repetitive recitation, saying the same thing many times.

There are many approaches repetitive recitation, and sadly I find it’s  easy to do wrong. You can sit down and read your entire page over and over only to find at the end of an hour nearly nothing has stuck in your memory. You can repeat each sentence many times but get stuck when you try to remember which sentence follows which.  That’s why I use a specific strategy: I call it making a necklace.

String your sentences together correctly for a talk as beautiful and smooth as this necklace.

Step 1. I start at the top of the page, and I look at the first sentence. That’s paragraph #1, sentence #1. I read it to myself a few times. I look away from the paper. I then speak the sentence ten times. This is the first pearl.

pearl-button1 one

Step 2. I move down one sentence to paragraph #1, sentence #2. I read it to myself a few times. I look away from the paper. I then speak the sentence ten times. That makes the second pearl.

pearl-button1 two

Step 3. I string these two pearls together. I glance at both sentences briefly. I look away from the paper. I say sentence #1 followed by sentence #2 five times, thus binding the sentences together in my mind.

pearl-button double 1-2

Step 4. I read sentence #3, and I speak it ten times without looking at the paper. This is the next pearl.

pearl-button1 three

Step 5. I string this new pearl together with the previous one. I glance at both sentences briefly. I look away from the paper. I say sentence #2 followed by sentence #3 five times, thus binding together the adjacent sentences in my mind.

pearl-button double 2-3

Step 6. I make the pairs of pearls into a necklace. I glance briefly at the sentences I’ve already spoken. I look away from the paper. I start from sentence #1 and talk all the way through sentence #3 three times, thus creating a a natural flow of speech in my mind.

pearl-button triple numbered

Continue. The pattern goes on until I reach the end of paragraph #1. That means I next bring up pearl #4, and I string it together with pearl #3. Then I string the whole necklace together–sentence #1 through sentence #4. And so on with sentence #5, sentence #6, and up to however many sentences in paragraph #1. When I have reached the end of the paragraph, I have created an entire “necklace” in my mind.

pearl-button quintuple numbered with elipses

And repeat. I repeat this process for each paragraph on the page. I create a necklace for paragraph #2, a necklace for paragraph #3, and so on in my mind. As I go, I sometimes speak paragraphs #1 and #2 together, paragraphs #2 and #3 together, and so on until I can speak the whole page without looking at it.

If I run out of time, that’s okay. I put the sheet back on top of my prep pages stack so I can return to it during my next memorization session. If I get the page memorized before the timer runs out, I put it at the bottom of my prep pages stack. Then I reach for the page now sitting on top of the stack, and I repeat the above steps until the memorization session time runs out.

Sounds hard, right? I promise it’s much easier to do than it is to read about. After the first paragraph you’ll get into the swing of it. Here are a few pointers that can help you succeed:

  • Talk. I actually talk while I memorize. For some people it’s enough to just say the words in their heads. Unfortunately that doesn’t work for me–my brain likes to “yada yada yada” over things and tell me I’m cool when in reality I’m not. Tricksy brain! So I verbalize to keep my mind on the straight-and-narrow and ensure the content is sinking in.
  • But be careful. The downside of talking my way through a memorization session is that I can talk myself hoarse. I make sure to speak with good technique and I don’t try to talk loudly. I also drink plenty of water and make sure to rest my voice after each session.
  • Look away. In the instructions above I emphasize looking away from my paper. This helps me wean myself off the text as soon as possible. So I read the sentence as many times as I need to, but I only count repetitions after I stop looking at the paper.
  • Walk around. Others recommend this practice as well. When repeating phrases many times you need to fight the natural inclination toward boredom. Walking or pacing around a room keeps your blood moving, and walking in general has been shown to help your brain work.
  • Use a counter. A counter helps me keep track of how many times I’ve said a given sentence, sentence pair, or paragraph. I like to use beads on a string for counting. But you can use almost anything as a counter–you can make marks on a piece of paper, move a pile of paperclips one at a time, or buy a counting device of any type. I like to use beads because they’re easy to carry as I pace around while talking. Between walking and moving the beads I can stay focused while I memorize.

This approach may feel like overkill, and honestly it’s intended to be (hence “fool-proof”). More repetition = better retention. I arrived at my repetition figures of ten, five, and three after many years of trial and error–they work best for me. Of course you’re welcome to experiment, especially if you’ve got many talks in your future. However, if this is your first time using the method I’d suggest giving my numbers a try before changing things up.

Beyond Foolproof: Fortify Your Memory

Unfortunately there are times when even the most earnest, well-planned memorization effort isn’t enough to get you through a talk. Maybe you have an hour+ long presentation, you don’t have 40+ hours to get it down cold, and the shorter talk/co-presenter/later date ideas aren’t options for you. Maybe you have stage fright and you just know your mind will want to go blank when you get up to speak. (Welcome to my world.) Maybe you know your audience will interrupt you with questions or pull you off-topic with comments, and you’re concerned you’ll lose your place.

In the next part of this series we’ll get into strategies to support you through such challenges. The right tools and techniques will enhance your memorization and help you deliver your presentation at your calm, confident best. If you want to make the most of this (or any!) memorization strategy, check out the next installment.