Memorize a presentation? Forget about it!

Memorize a presentation?

Presenting is a highly rewarding exercise. Yet many people struggle with it. Nervousness and also the required preparation induce uncomfortable feelings in many people. The first one is a necessary evil and it can be dealt with. But how about the second one? People often ask me how I manage to memorize a presentation. Well, here is the secret: I do not memorize anything. And now hold your breath: I never practice either.

Natural conversations

The way we present has fundamentally changed. Ten years ago, many of us would have probably endured a boring and scripted presentation. Today, we expect presentations to be conversational. In his excellent book The Naked Presenter, presentation guru Garr Reynolds says:

”Most communication experts today agree that a good talk or a good presentation should feel more like a conversation.”

Memorizing a speech or a presentation goes against that objective, from my point of view. Such presentations can only sound stiff unless we are trained actors. The same is true for spending too much time practicing. Think about it: how often do you memorize a conversation before you have it?

An alternative approach

What would you rather do in front of an audience (customers, friends, colleagues)?:

  1. Memorize a long poem and recite it
  2. Read a 50 page story and then tell that story

Chances are you would prefer option 2. I certainly do. And that’s why I have developed a process that feels like preparing to tell a story. It really works for me. Give it a try.

The steps

Step 1: Create your content. I don’t want to go into any details here. Much has been written about how to develop a great presentation. So, let’s just assume we already have a somewhat solid slide deck in front of us.

Step 2: 30,000 ft view. Take your presentation and review it in the slide sorter view. Do a high-level walk-through. Check your general structure and story. A presentation needs to have a logical flow. Look for inconsistencies and harsh transitions. Rearrange slides where you see the need. This step usually takes a few minutes (assuming you already have a somewhat decent story….).

Slide Sorter View

Step 3: Build a map. Now it’s time to drill down further. Stay in the slide sorter view and zoom out so that you can see all slides on one screen. Take a screenshot and paste it into a new slide. Now, think about the logical sections of your presentation. I put a bar over slides that belong together (think chapters or sections). Once I have done that, I then write a short “mission statement” into that bar. If you struggle with your mission statement, you might want to revisit the entire section or maybe delete it after all. Less is more when it comes to presenting.

Presentation Map

Step 4: Review the map. This map is incredibly powerful as it helps you refine and visualize your presentation structure. Use the map to review your content and structure again. Look at each slide and check whether it supports the mission statement of the section. It is often helpful to show this structure to another person.

At this point, you should know your presentation quite well. All that without memorizing anything. Also, you have the ability to really refine and further develop your content. In the example above, I can clearly see that slide 5 is useless and that section 3 is weak and incomplete.

So far so good. Let’s work on the details. You can now switch back to the slide view. It might also help to print out your map. The following steps should be repeated for all the slides. Walk through them sequentially.

Step 5: Purpose: Write down the purpose of the slide. This should be a simple sentence. This is the key message you want to bring across with this particular slide. This message needs to be crystal clear. And it needs to support the mission statement of section that it belongs to. This step not only helps you “memorize” the presentation but it will also help you get rid of useless materials. Once again, less is more.

Step 6: Messages and stories. Now that you know the purpose, start thinking about how to best bring the purpose and message for the slide across to your audience. This could be a story. Or this could be data points. Stories usually work best. People love them. Also, it is easy to remember them. They sound conversational. If you present numbers, think about an interesting way to do that. Try not to limit yourself. I often end up with 2-3 different ways to talk about a slide. That gives you a lot of options when you actually present.

Presentation notes

Congrats. You have made it that far. You should know your presentation pretty well by now. And your content should be really clean and well structured by now. But what about memorizing a presentation?

The last but important step

The final step is quite simple but it is the most important one. It comes closest to memorizing the presentation. I usually repeat this step a few times.

Step 7: Walk-through. In the days/ hours leading up to a presentation, I typically take a piece of paper and mentally walk through the presentation slide by slide. Depending on how comfortable I am, I write down the key message of each slide. In most cases, I won’t have the presentation open for that. That helps me focus on the general story and the messages. Also, I usually print the map and review it. However, I do not stand up and practice the whole thing in real time. You might want to do that if it makes you comfortable. It does not work for me.

An effective process

This process might look quite complicated. But it’s not. It accomplishes three things:

- It cleans up your presentation flow
- Helps you memorize your flow and talking points
- Gives you confidence

Is this time-consuming? Not really. It’s a whole lot faster than writing a script and memorizing it. Scripting pulls you too far down and you run the risk of loosing the bird eye’s view. You get stuck in details.

Knowing your stories and messages for each slide will then allow you to deliver your presentation in a conversational style. Why is that? You know your content inside and out and that is a real confidence booster. Running through a memorized script on the other hand has the potential to make you nervous.

That’s it for today. I will walk you through an example sometime later this year. Make sure to check back.

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  • Mario Daigle

    Great concept and well articulated. I share your aversion to memorizing a presentation, and my goal, like you, is to sound conversational. Finding stories to convey key points can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s always my objective. Stories make presentation content resonate with my audience, and it actually helps the content stick!

    • http://www.performance-ideas.com Christoph Papenfuss

      Thanks for your comments, Mario! I agree with you that finding stories is a challenge.

  • http://performancemanagers.wordpress.com/ Mark Rolfe

    Great article. Luckily, I’ve learnt much of my own approach to presentation from the best – thanks Christoph! I also do not memorize. I do, however, take a read through slide-by-slide as I near the presentation – my way of picking up any glaring errors.

  • Bftracy

    Brendan, this approach is definitely one where the presenter is more at ease. Trying to memorize can cause memory hiccups that become apparent. Thanks for sharing these ideas and tips for effective presentations.

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