Familiarize. Don’t Memorize.


It was the summer of 2009 and I had eight, 45-minute presentations to memorize as a newly hired high school workshop speaker for a local college. The other new speakers and I had been given scripts for each of the presentations, with topics ranging from budgeting to sexual harassment, and had been told to follow the scripts closely to make sure that the promised objectives were covered. We had six weeks to learn the scripts, and would be presenting four of the eight topics in front of the program administrators and a few of the other new speakers.

For the first presentation, I spent hours breaking it down and practicing in small chunks. I practiced in my bedroom. I practiced in my car. I even practiced on the driveway, outlining the presentation in chalk, complete with colorful pictures.  It was an agonizingly slow process.  And I had to do it seven more times before the end of summer.

I had two main problems. One, the material wasn’t my own and some of the phrasing wasn’t my style. Two, it was really, really hard to memorize something word for word, no matter who wrote it!  But, I tried, and largely succeeded, or so I thought.

On the day of the presentation, I was the first speaker. I went through the script almost flawlessly.  It was . . . too perfect.  Actually, it wasn’t perfect at all. My pace was a little slow, as I was trying to recall the exact wording at times. My words weren’t my own, so I sounded a little “stilted.” And, my eye contact was more of a glazed-over look as I was actually looking at the words on the imaginary page in front of me.  I had studied the scripts so carefully, that I knew where on the page I was when I was presenting the material.

When I finished, I looked over at the administrators. They smiled politely, clearly wondering what happened to the expressive woman who had wowed them with a lively audition just a week before. And then one said, “You don’t have to memorize it and you can even tell your own stories, as long as they are relevant.”

What a relief!  I just got my summer back.  It would still take time to prepare for seven more presentations, but if I could speak extemporaneously, practicing from an outline instead of a script, and include my own material, then not only would it be easier, but I would sound more conversational.

As I was basking in relief, the next speaker started. He had not memorized the material.  I’m not sure if he had even had tried to learn it.  He actually read the script, occasionally looking up, which sometimes caused him to lose his place. This approach, the reading approach, was not going to work at all in front of a teen audience (not in front of any audience, really).

The third speaker didn’t memorize as I had done and he didn’t read the script, either.  He gave an impromptu version, loosely following the outline, but missing some of the key points.  He was clearly not familiar with the material, although he was easy to listen to.

The fourth speaker hit it out of the ball park.  He had discovered the key: Familiarize. Don’t memorize.

Familiarize. Don’t memorize.

If I could familiarize myself with the material, and know it well, but not memorize it, I knew would connect with the teens. I could speak from the heart and really look into their eyes, not at my imaginary script. Of course, certain phrases were still expressed the same way every time and once in a while parts were impromptu, unplanned comments inspired by the moment.

To get away from sounding scripted, I learned I needed to practice from keywords, or an outline.  I had to resist the writer’s temptation to say it exactly as I wrote it. If I did, I sounded “stilted.”

I sounded stilted because I didn’t write the way I spoke.  When we speak, we used shorter sentences and shorter words.  We use contractions. We use an active voice (e.g., Chelsie wore an itsy bitsy, polka dot bikini) vs. a passive voice (“The itsy bitsy, polka dot bikini was worn by Chelsie).

To speak with passion, don’t memorize, don’t read and don’t speak completely off-the-cuff, instead . . .

Familiarize. Don’t Memorize.

Not Just the Facts, Ma’am

Just the Facts

“I just want to get the facts, ma’am,” Joe Friday (actor Jack Webb) famously implored when questioning women in the old TV police show, Dragnet.

Joe Friday might have just wanted the facts, but your audience wants more.

Sure, they want to know your material, but they also want to know you. They want to connect with you as a human being and they want to connect with your material because it matters to them on an emotional level. Even the hard-nosed business types and the highly educated professionals.

Emotions connect us and drive us in a way that dry logic can’t. Logic will get hijacked by emotions almost every time. If you can connect with your audience on an emotional level, they can be more easily moved to agree with your supporting logic.

I once had a presentation client, I’ll call “Susan” who was preparing to present a 3 hour seminar on a topic in psychology. Well, the first thing Susan and I talked about was the need for at least one break for the audience. No matter how fascinating your topic nor how engaging you are as a speaker, people need a “bio” break! That concept was an easy sell.

The second issue was the huge amount of content she wanted to cover, using a PowerPoint presentation that truly was “Death by PowerPoint,” with slide after slide of bullet points, long paragraphs, and charts that were impossibly complicated.  Getting her to put less on her slides was a bit more difficult than getting her to allow for a “bio” break, but she relented when reflecting on her own experiences having to sit through such visual torture.

What was more difficult was getting Susan to try to engage the participants emotionally, through stories, especially personal stories.


Susan, like many other presenters felt that stories were “fluff.”

“I have a lot of material to cover and telling stories just doesn’t seem professional. Stories are fluff.”

After a little more digging, she also admitted that telling personal stories was uncomfortable.

“I would feel too vulnerable showing emotion in a story. And I might make other people uncomfortable.”

BINGO. She was afraid of being judged for having emotion or recreating an experience that would invoke emotions in others. Her professional veneer might get tarnished by emotion in the telling of a personal story.

But she was willing to try.

I asked her to tell me WHY her topic was important, what difference did it make in the world. I asked her how she first realized the importance. And . . . she told me a story, a story about an experience with a client that forever changed her practice. As she told the story, she was animated and engaging. I could put myself in her place and feel her emotions.

“That’s your story! That’s the story you start with,” I told her.

We worked on the story, and the rest of her presentation, to add some additional touch points (and some audience activities . . . 3 hours is a long time to keep people’s attention without switching it up).

I called her a few days after her presentation to ask how it went, and she seemed almost amazed at how well it went.

“When I opened with that story, I had them all spellbound. It was an incredible experience to connect with them. Some even had tears in their eyes. I made my topic important and relevant to them with that story. It wasn’t fluff.”

Don’t be afraid to connect with your audience by being authentically vulnerable. Tell personal stories that evoke emotion. And tell those stories with passion!

Not afraid, but passionate.

Engage with Passion

60020425-109My husband and I recently had a photo shoot with our 4 grandchildren. As you can see from the above photo with two of them, this was not the typical posed photo shoot. It was wild, with an overwhelmed 17-month old, who had just arrived with her mother from New York that day, almost-3-year-old twins who were chaotic whirlwinds of energy, and a relatively calm 10 year-old, who thought the whole process was so fun that he asked, “Can we do this again?”

It was unlike any photo session I had ever participated in–high energy, directed by the photographer, but unscripted, with no static poses. I was skeptical about the results, until I saw the pictures. Energy and love, a passion for family is clearly evident. I’m tempted to share all the pictures, but I won’t!

This experience and the resulting photos reminded me of the compelling nature of passion. Bring passion to your speaking to bring compelling engagement with your audience.

All too often, especially among business speakers and content-expert speakers, presentations are dry, passionless PowerPoint info dumps. The speakers often care, deeply, about their topic, which is a starting point for passion, but the passion is lost in translation to a presentation.

Why does this happen?

There are many reasons, but three that I see often are:

  1. Ignoring or fearing emotional connection
  2. “The way it’s always been done”
  3. Scripting an entire presentation

These will be explored in detail as topics for the next 3 posts.  Stay tuned to find out how you can be the speaker that holds an audience spellbound (at least some of the time) with your passion, not afraid to connect emotionally, not afraid to challenge convention, not afraid to drop the script.

Not afraid, but passionate.