To learn or not to learn your speech by heart

by Pierre Morsa

Some people think that to make a great TEDx presentation, they should learn their text by heart. Our collective experience as coaches shows that it’s a good solution only IF:

  • You like to know your speech word for word
  • and it fits your personal style
  • and you know how to do it properly.

If you don’t meet one of these conditions, then it’s best to avoid learning your text by heart. Why? Because it will appear awkward, unnatural or insincere. Reciting a text from memory requires a lot of effort, often at the expense of naturalness and emotion. To keep people close to your heart, don’t learn by heart.

But why if you want to do it anyway? Our advice is to learn it to perfection. You must practice until you can recite the text without having to think; only then will your brain be free to connect with the audience and express emotion again. Doing so takes a lot of time; the speakers who learn a text by heart and deliver it successfully on stage spend up to 40 hours just rehearsing.

The alternative we recommend for most speakers is to perfectly memorize the key points of the storyline, and use improvised, natural sentences instead of pre-learned ones. It is a much more accessible approach which delivers great results. You will still need to spend time rehearsing, but much less than if you tried to learn everything by heart.

Of course, there is an exception. Sometimes, it’s absolutely necessary to say something exactly as it was prepared. It may be a very important statement in a public relations setting, a famous quote, or key marketing messages. In that case you should take the time to memorize those lines word for word.

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