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When You Need to Memorize Something

An approach that works and even can be fun... well, kind of fun.

Key points

  • Sometimes, it's worth memorizing a short talk, but only if one has enough time to practice so it doesn't sound robotic.
  • One component of the strategy is to bracket the troublespots and practice only those.
  • Another component is to create a logical link between your troublespot.and the line before.
  • Recording the script and reading the words aloud just before the recording says them can help.
Aum An, Noun Project, CC
Source: Aum An, Noun Project, CC

Memorizing can be a good idea not just when you're an actor but also when you'll be giving an important brief talk, for example, at a meeting or a wedding toast. But memorizing is appropriate only if you have time to practice it so it doesn’t sound memorized.

If you don’t have time to memorize it, on a slip of paper or index card, just write a cheat sheet: one word that will remind you of each major point.

Tips for memorizing

If you are going to memorize, the following approach has worked well for my clients.

1. (optional) If you think it would help, hand-write the script. Some people benefit and enjoy that slow, visual, kinesthetic process.

2. Read the whole thing aloud. That gives you auditory and visual feedback as well as an overall sense of it. Also, if it’s a script that you can change, reading aloud can alert you to what should be revised, excised, or added.

3. Say the first line or two from memory, using the script as a cheat sheet. Bracket any errors in pencil. The reason will become clear in Step 6.

3a. Repeat Step 3 but add the next line or two. Keep repeating that until you've gone through the first 15 or 30 seconds of your talk, albeit imperfectly.

4. Record the script, including any parts that would be read by your scene partner(s). Ideally, have that partner record it with you.

5. As the recording is playing, read aloud that first 15- to 30-second chunk a moment before the recording says it. Do that a few times, each time reducing the recording volume a bit until it’s barely audible.

Repeat steps 3 through 5 for each of the remaining 15- to-30-second chunks.

6. Spend most of the subsequent practice time on the errors you bracketed in pencil. For each, try to think of a logical link between the previous line and the one you’re stumbling on. When you've mastered a bracketed portion, erase the brackets so your subsequent work can focus on the remaining trouble spots.

7. Don’t beat yourself up if memorizing takes longer than you had hoped. You’ll get there and, if you drop a few lines, the world won’t end. Do try to have perspective: Even if you’re acting in a play before a packed house, if you drop a line or three, and even if the audience and actors notice, that will soon fade as just another mote of trivia among people's many distant memories. Try, of course, but forgive your trespasses.

8. Have fun. Even if your presentation is at a crucial work meeting, a flub or two only minimally detracts. What matters most, by far, is your message's overall quality and delivery. I remind myself of that whenever I give a talk or piano concert. I try to play with reasonable abandon, and if I flub a few notes, it’s better than if I played cautiously in fear of making mistakes. That mindset frees me to have fun when rehearsing and during a performance.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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