by Steve Adubato, PhD

Jane is a manager in a Fortune 500 company, who has an important presentation coming up. She’s been practicing her speech over and over again, reading it, word for word, from a script she keeps writing and rewriting. She’s trying to memorize it, but is getting increasingly frustrated when she loses her place and in turn her concentration. Yet millions of professionals practice their presentations in this way and pay a hefty price when the time comes to stand and deliver and connect with important stakeholders.

Jane’s frustrating experience raises some challenging questions.

Question: Why do so many professionals attempt to write and then memorize their presentations?

Answer: Because they mistakenly believe that this approach gives them more control. Many are convinced that they must get every word into their presentation exactly the way they have it planned. They mistakenly believe that this misguided approach will make them come off as well-practiced and organized. Yet too often, they present in a stilted, stiff manner and ultimately they are lacking in their ability to persuade.

Question: What are some additional disadvantages of trying to memorize your presentation?

Answer: The biggest one is losing your place or your train of thought. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was giving a commencement speech soon after he was first elected. He was reading the speech verbatim (clearly written by a staffer) when he lost his place in attempting to deliver a dramatic and powerful point. Once he fumbled his words, the moment was lost and Bloomberg had a hard time getting the crowd back. It’s bad enough when you lose your place when actually reading from a script, but what happens if you’re trying to memorize your presentation and lose your train of thought? How do you segue to your next point? The problem is that memorizing causes you to focus too much on specific words and not enough on important themes, points and messages.

Question: But aren’t great presentations all about using the right words at the right time to get across the right message?

Answer: This is a big misconception in the communications world. We get caught up in thinking about famous quotes from great speeches (John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”). Sure, it’s a great one-liner, but Kennedy practiced that line written by a speechwriter over and over again. His timing was impeccable, and his pausing precise. But the rest of us aren’t John F. Kennedy or even Ronald Reagan. Most professionals should focus on powerful ideas that get triggered through a bulleted outline by key words as opposed to trying to remember complete sentences and paragraphs. That’s too much to ask, and ultimately is a prescription for a communication disaster.

Question: So you’re advocating speaking off the cuff in an extemporaneous fashion?

Answer: Not really. Again, it’s about the bullets in your outline triggering emotions and in turn your words. People respond to other people whom they feel are communicating in a genuine, conversational and confident fashion. So, scrap your script. Get rid of the prepared text. Stop memorizing and start communicating. Speak what you feel and trust that the words will follow, even if they don’t come out exactly the way you planned. Most audiences will give you the benefit of the doubt and not judge you if you momentarily lose your place or a thought escapes you. However, you’re more likely to recover quickly and more naturally (“I remember now…the point I want to make is…”). That’s the way people talk. That’s the way people connect. Memorizing won’t work. Trust yourself and your audience. The payoff will be worth it.