Reading and/or Memorizing Your Speech

It's been said that some folks would rather have a root canal than give a speech. That may or may not be true. However, as a speech teacher, I know that convincing some students to not read or memorize his or her speech is a more difficult operation than performing a simple root canal. The root of the reading/memorizing problem runs deeper than the roots of many people's canine teeth.


My advice, simply put, is "do not read a speech." Unless, perhaps, you are Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Fed, giving a speech about whether the Fed will raise interest rates. Mr. Greenspan doesn't have to worry about whether his audience is listening: they are, and extremely carefully at that. He can read his speeches because he has to be absolutely accurate. Experts such as scientists address an audience of their peers about technical matters that have to be conveyed accurately can also read their presentations. However, I've slept through the reading of ostensibly technical presentations given by communications scholars. Rule: unless you absolutely have to read your presentation because accuracy is an overriding factor, don't read your presentation.

Why you shouldn't read your speech:

  1. It's boring, boring, boring.
  2. Most folks can't read aloud without stumbling over words. Many get lost when they look up and then look back at the text.
  3. Communication is between the speaker and the text, not between the speaker and the audience.
  4. There is little of no eye contact. You have to be able to take in several lines at a time and keep your place.
  5. There are no dynamics. It's wooden. Often it's read too fast.
  6. Reading a speech well is more difficult than speaking extemporaneously.
  7. There is little or no feedback so that you can't make subtle adjustments.


Memorizing your speech is even worse than reading it. All the objections that apply to the read speech also apply to the memorized speech. Spontaneity is gone. It's stilted. Often times delivery is too rapid. Concentration is on the words, not the ideas. Sometimes it sounds too formal, like a written essay. There is little or no feedback or other contact with the audience. Worst of all, if your mind goes blank or if you make a mistake or a member of the audience interrupts, the whole presentation falls apart and extreme speech anxiety sets in: your heart begins to pound, you begin to sweat blood, your knees shake, your stomach rejects your dinner, and you would feel much better off if you were dead. This is where, I as a speech teacher, am asked, "Can I start over?" This is analogous to the novice musician who has to stop and repeat when making a mistake while practicing. A professional musician, on the other hand, doesn't stop. Time and music are linear. So is a speech.

Extemporaneous Speaking

So, what do you do? The answer is to choose a middle ground and speak extemporaneously. We have all been in an argument and have later on thought up all the cool things we should have said, absolutely devastating our opponent. Public speaking is similar, only we get to think up the cool stuff ahead of time. We have time to plan, carefully research, and outline our presentation. We can also practice aloud or in our heads, but we should concentrate on communicating the ideas, not the exact words. Each time it should be different, but should also follow our outline-kind of like a jazz solo. Jazz musicians follow and outline of the harmonic rhythm of a tune by memorizing or reading chord patterns which constitute an outline of the tune. Except for the introduction and conclusion, they do not memorize or read a melody line. This is also the way it should be when giving a speech. You may memorize a quotation or story to begin and end a speech, but the body should be delivered from note cards. Note cards should have very little information on them-just key words or ideas. Note cards should be thought of as a map that one follows. It goes without saying that they should be stacked in correct order, but I've seen mixed up note cards too often to not mention it. If you look at the first card, use it, and put it on the bottom, you shouldn't have any trouble finding your way and giving a lively speech.

Concluding Advice

  1. Don't read.
  2. Don't memorize word for word.
  3. Do prepare.
  4. Do use keyword note cards.
  5. Communicate ideas, not words.

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© Robert Gwynne 1999