There’s a bit of a rant ahead, but it can be summed up in these 16 words:
“It is nothing short of ridiculous to memorize ten words in order to remember one fact.”
I don’t think I can say it any better than Dale Breckenridge Carnegie said it…way back in 1915.
But I do think I can (a) explain a bit about why he declares memorizing a script “ridiculous,” and (b) what you can do instead.
[By the way, if you’re someone who never has a script at all, and just “wings it,” every time with no prep… well, you’re not off the hook. Read on.]
Ready? Let’s go.
WHY YOU THINK YOU NEED A SCRIPT
I get it: you’ve got an important conversation, presentation, or pitch coming up. Maybe, because you’re a speaker, presenting IS your business.
And you want to get it right.
For a lot of us, we were taught to “get it right” on paper first, which meant writing a script. We could make sure we said everything we wanted to say, in the perfect order, with the most beautifully scripted language.
But that “scripted” part? That’s where the trouble starts.
We’ve all seen those speakers and those presentations. It’s those times where either the speaker is literally reading from what they’ve written (I’m looking at you, scientists and scholars….) or has so clearly attempted to memorize their beautifully crafted script word-for-word that we not only lose all the flow of what they’ve written, we’ve also lost connection with them as fellow humans.
Why? Because they’re way more focused on getting the words right than in making sure we get the whole point of all those words. We describe them as “wooden,” or ironically, “scripted.”
Now, at some level all of that “getting it right” part is true and valuable. When you write everything down you’re forcing the invisible idea in your head to take concrete shape. It forces the clarity that comes from having to find the right words to actually write down.
When it’s on paper, you can spot the problems better. You can move things around. Make cuts. Add sections.
You can also stay “on script,” which is wildly important if you are a politician or leader, and especially true if the stakes are high. It’s also especially, especially true if your instincts about what you ad-lib in the moment are… not great.
But here’s a dirty little secret: writing a script makes it way easier for the person telling you to write it down to check for all of those things, too. You know, like the teacher who likely taught you to write scripts in the first place. We can scan a script. We can’t “scan” a performance (unless it’s transcribed… more on that in a bit).
And while I’m sure all of those folks have your best interests at heart (it’s why they’re reviewing and helping you edit your written script, after all), they’re also looking out for their own time and skill.
“So, wait, Tamsen, are you telling me I don’t need a script at all?”
Nope. I’m not. I’m saying you need something that helps you accomplish all of the good things with as few of the bad as possible.
WHEN SCRIPTS GO BAD
So let’s talk about what’s creating some of the “bad” of scripts in the first place:
Issue #1: Written English and spoken English Are. Not. The. Same.
One of my high school English teachers, Ms. Hume, had a funny rule: when we wrote papers, we were never allowed to use any form of the verb “to be.” No is, was, be, been, were, etc. It made us, she said, have to be (ugh!) both more creative and more precise in our language, and generally forced us out of any passive language.
Also in my high school, and at least 15+ years before TED talks came into the public consciousness, every senior had to give a 10-minute persuasive speech, from memory, to the rest of the high school in order to graduate.
Ms. Hume was in charge of that, too.
The result? Well, I spend a good part of my life as a speaker now. No small part of that is due to the fact that we all had to get over that fear of public speaking (or at least prove to ourselves that doing so wasn’t actually fatal). So I’m very glad for the “have to give a speech,” part.
But the other result was a lot of very written-sounding talks, for the simple reason that the written language is often very different from spoken.
When you speak, you interrupt yourself with other thoughts and asides. You typically use much shorter words and sentences. You (and your audience) rely very heavily on your body language to fill in blanks… and to tell you whether or not your audience even understands or cares about you. YOU USE FORMS OF THE VERB “TO BE.”
When you strip all of that out, you stop sounding like you’re talking with someone. You sound like you’re talking at them.
Now, there are some folks who master the completely written word and make it sound natural and real: Actors. Actors usually don’t have the option of changing the words they’re supposed to say.
But two things about that: one, the people writing the words for the actions (playwrights and screenwriters) have learned how to write down spoken English so that, when performed, it still sounds “right” when spoken.
You can learn to do this, too, but you have to forget pretty much everything your grammar teachers ever taught you. And start sentences with “and.” Or “but.” Or write fragments (and even interrupt yourself while you’re doing it). And use “is.”
The second thing about actors is that they have rehearsed and done extraordinary work to make those written, memorized words sound that way.
Which leads me to the second way scripts go bad.
Issue #2: Few people have the time to rehearse enough to make a written script sound natural.
I’ll give folks credit for having the inclination and intention to rehearse. But business, and life, so often gets in the way.
Without enough rehearsal, you end up in what I call the “Valley of awkward.” That’s where you’ve rehearsed enough to remember your presentation, but not enough to make it LOOK like you’re remembering it, rather than just giving it.
Is it possible to rehearse your way out of the Valley? Yes. In fact, it’s the ONLY way to get out of the Valley.
But it takes a lot of time. Like, a LOT a lot. And in the meantime, the audience sits in agony, watching as the speaker bravely tries to remember which words were supposed to come next.
Issue #3: Words are much harder to remember than ideas.
Have you ever tried to remember a list of things you were supposed to pick up at the store, and then once you got there… couldn’t?
That’s because our brains don’t — and really can’t — remember disconnected pieces of information. To remember something, our brain has to connect it to something already in our memory. Importantly, what we connect to has to be pretty secure in our memory and/or important.
That’s why a lot of memory experts say that, to remember a list of things to do or buy, to associate those items with images, or to make some kind of other connection. Or, be like Sherlock Holmes and create a memory palace.
When you write out a script and then try to memorize it word-for-word, without any deeper connections, you violate those critical memory requirements. The words are connected only by their presence next to each other in sentences even though they represent something much larger.
But hiding in that problem is the key to the solution.
SCRIPTS VS. SCRIPTING
See, since ideas are much easier to remember than words, the key lies in figuring out a natural way for you to remember your ideas — and their flow — first, and then, attach words to them in your mind.
I call that “scripting.”
Borrowing a bit from the world of software coding, think of scripting as an intermediate step between your idea and what you end up presenting.
I’ve talked about my high-level process for this before, but the simplest way to do this is from the “inside out:”
- Build the core case, and the language you’ll use for it. I call these the Red Thread® Statements:
- The audience GOAL (the question they’re asking now)
- The PROBLEM of perspective that I would ultimately help them solve
- The TRUTH that would make the problem impossible to ignore
- The high-level CHANGE I wanted them to make
- The ACTIONS I could realistically teach/show them
- Figure out what you need to illustrate each of those core concepts so that you, and your audience, can attach those ideas to other ideas. Brainstorm stories, statistics, exercises, etc.
- Capture the language you naturally use to talk about and transition between those things (this is the actual scripting part)
There are three main ways you can do #3:
- For those who prefer to write, create “scriptlets”: a scripted OUTLINE divided into the sections of your case.
- For those who prefer to talk (a.k.a., those who like to “wing it”): talk through your talk, as if you were winging it, but stopping to find better ways to say what you’ve just said. I highly recommend recording (and transcribing) that session, so you can go back and capture the best versions of you came up with.
- For those who prefer to build slides, start with slides for your Red Thread® Statements, then add slides for your supporting material between those Red Thread slides. Capture, in bullets, what you’d say on each of those slides (I still follow the Scriptlet format you can see in the link above)
You can combine approaches (I do), and even switch back and forth. In fact, I love comedian Sarah Silverman’s approach to scripting: she writes out a standup comedy script once… and then throws it away. She gets the benefit of capturing ideal written language and flow and then forces her brain — and mouth — to find the best spoken versions.
Whatever approach you take, the process of first establishing the case, and then revisiting it over and over while you build up from it, starts to put your presentation into your long-term memory long before you realize it’s even happening.
And that brings me to the final point:
INTERNALIZE, DON’T MEMORIZE
I’ve worked with hundreds of executives and speakers at this point, on no-notes presentations that range from high stakes, annual sales meetings or big-stage TEDx talks to the low-stakes of weekly client update meetings. And here’s what I’ve learned:
The only thing you have to memorize is the case for your idea,
and you have to memorize it before you build the rest of your presentation.
Here’s the thing: your case IS your idea. It’s what everything else is built on. Because of how our brain works, if you have that in your memory first, you’ll be able to attach everything else back to it. Magic!
What that means is that you don’t up memorizing your presentation, you internalize it instead. Most importantly: we don’t forget what we’ve internalized.
But back to rehearsal (of a sort): The only way to truly internalize something is to practice retrieving it. As James Lang says in his book, Small Teaching, “if you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory.”
So, 1900 words later, that’s why Carnegie’s mere 16 words are so powerful: Our brains don’t remember words. They remember ideas. The words just come along for the ride.
Don’t build your presentation from the words you’ll say. Build it from the idea you need to transfer.
Not only will you be more likely to remember your presentation that way — and deliver it more naturally — your audience will be much more likely to remember it, and you, too.Our brains don't remember words. They remember ideas. Click To Tweet
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