Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How to learn a speech?

As a new Toastmaster member I have been troubled by the question of how to learn a speech. All of the other members I have seen talk seem blessed with wonderful memories, able to deliver impressive speeches flawlessly, without recourse to notes, powerpoint bullets, or any other apparent memory aid. 

I last gave memorised speeches at school – and I don't remember being particularly good at them, so I was worried about how I would manage.

But then a slow logical optimism through induction bit. The key word in that last paragraph was “all”. If every speaker was able to memorise their speech so effectively, then surely I should be able to as well? All that I needed to know was their techniques. Simple!

So I asked several of the speakers how they managed to learn their speeches. Dishearteningly, each person I asked gave a slightly different reply. “Repetition”, though, seemed to feature in every reply. They had practised those speeches a lot before actually giving them.

Seeking greater enlightenment, I turned to the Internet. It would seem that people deploy a wide number of techniques to learn speeches. There do seem to be some tried and true methods that shine through, though.

Joshua Foer, in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, describes one process, called “elaborative encoding”. Using this technique you would convert the paragraphs of your speech into a set of bizarre and engrossing visual images. Then you would order the images in a route through a familiar place, such as your house.

The images and the journey are far easier for you to remember. To you, your speech has just become a journey through Lewis Carroll's looking glass, rather than a pile of hard to remember words. This technique has been tried and tested through time. The Romans knew it as “The Method of Loci”.

Researchers have known since the late 1800's that spaced repetition leads to memorisation. They have shown that when we first learn something it is placed in the brains short term memory store. With time it either forgotten or moved to the brains long term memory store. The key to moving the material to the long term memory store, and to retrieving it from the long term memory store is repetition. Exactly what shone through from my earlier queries!

Distressingly, the timing of the repetition is important. For best effect you have to repeat the learning just as you about to forget it! The time between each “about to forget” moment grows with repetition. This is termed the “spacing effect”. What makes this distressing is that we each appear to have our own optimal intervals of learning. So we have to somehow work out what our own optimal intervals of learning are!

Research also shows that cramming does appear to increase our understanding of a topic – but it really doesn't help us remember what we understood.

All this repetition seems like hard work. But then, know that the harder you work to remember something, the more it will be sealed in your memory. Also note that you can't take current performance as an indicator of your future performance – you might have left that future repetition too late!

One suggestion for easing the hard work is to record back to back copies of your speech. Then simply play them as you fall asleep. On awaking replay the recordings of the speech. And there, voilĂ ! The speech, she is memorised.

For my icebreaker speech I used simple repetition to learn the speech. It worked well for me. In hindsight I need to work on determining my optimal spacing. For my next speech I am going start with the method of loci, and then switch to hard repetition. I might even try using headphones!

My unexpected takeaway from researching how to memorise a speech is that if we manage to become an expert at something, it's not because we remember our lessons or readings on the subject: it's because intense practice in that something keeps our memories fresh.


Anonymous said...

"Never give the same speech once" - Harvey MacKay

Daniel said...

Just came across these tips on "How Not To Be Boring" http://emigal.com/2011/01/18/how-not-to-be-boring.

Quite good.