Part of my business is helping researchers develop talks for non-specialist audiences, and then coaching them to deliver those talks well.
The first questions they always ask me: Do I have to memorize the talk? Do I have to have a script?
Memorizing a script feels to most people like the worst test in the world — like being asked to play a Prince guitar solo while walking a tightrope made of coals suspended above a Komodo dragon pit. It’s a start-to-finish chain of impending, cascading failure. Who in their right mind would take that on?
My advice, based on my experience coaching hundreds of researchers and also informed by Chris Anderson’s book “TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking” (which has two chapters on scripting and rehearsal that are worth the price of the book):
Stop thinking about memorization, and start thinking about rehearsal.
Anderson says the majority of TED speakers script their whole talks and memorize them.
And then they “do their best to avoid sounding memorized.”
I’ve found the same: the ideal path for most people is to script, memorize and then rehearse the hell out of it.
The point isn’t memorization per se. The point — whether you have a script or a detailed outline — is to rehearse enough times so that the talk is in your bones. So that you can “live it, not recite it,” as Anderson says.
In essence, rehearsal is the real creation of the talk. It’s also the real memorization — at the cellular level.
If you have the time before the event — and I’m talking months, not days or weeks — I recommend scripting the talk, memorizing it and then rehearsing it all the time.
One of my clients told me his talk’s opening started to come alive for him while he was rehearsing it standing in the grocery line.
Writing a script serves at least five crucial functions for researchers:
- First, it’s the best diagnostic to find any holes in your arguments, stories or narrative.
- Second, it allows you to construct simple transitions between sections — often the hardest part of any talk for researchers to finesse.
- Third, it inserts guardrails to prevent you from digressing and overexplaining — tendencies plaguing many researchers.
- Fourth, it allows other people to read drafts of the talk, so you don’t have to give it to them to get a critique.
- Fifth, it allows you to capture your best lines and play around with their best positions in the talk.First, it’s the best diagnostic to find any holes in your arguments, stories or narrative.
However: developing a script for a 20-minute talk takes at least a month — usually more, because researchers are really busy. You might not have that kind of time.
But the “rehearsing it all the time part” is mandatory, whether you’re working from a script or not, whether you have two months or two weeks.
Because unscripted isn’t unprepped. It isn’t improv. And treating it as such is seldom pretty.
As Anderson puts it:
Some people start with a script, others with a set of bullet points, but the process of rehearsal moves these much closer together. In both cases, the goal is a carefully structured talk, delivered with in-the-moment focus.
Takeaway: When you rehearse enough, you create something very cool — not you giving a talk, but yourself inside the talk, relaxed and focused 100 percent on connecting with your audiences.
You become the talk.