Should You Memorize Your Toastmasters Speech?

World Champions of Public Speaking all said they do it!

There’s a raging debate in the Toastmasters public speaking community about whether or not you should memorize your 5-7 minute speech. Some commenters are emphatic: “NO MEMORIZING! You’ll look and sound like a robot.” Others memorized the opening and closing of their speeches, and casually rehearsed the main points in the body of their speech.

Many Toastmasters said that in order to keep their speech sounding fresh, they only practiced it a few times. Some practiced their speech 3 times, out loud, while videotaping. Others practiced their speech to themselves – just in their head – 10 times.

This all started when a club member finished presenting her 5th speech in the Toastmasters Competent Communicator manual. The first 5 speeches are read-from-notes speeches, which is tough enough when you’re starting out. The remaining 5 speeches of the 10-speech manual are to be presented without notes.

“So how, exactly, do I give my speech without notes?” Mindy asked, in desperation and despair. “It’s tough enough doing my speech WITH notes.”

With conflicting answers from the Toastmasters I had asked, I went straight to the World Champions of Public Speaking and ask each of them directly.

I asked 8 previous World Champions of Public Speaking the following question:

“Did you memorize, word-for-word, your World Championship speech?”

The answer is YES. But that’s not where their answers ended…

Jim Key – 2003 World Champion of Public Speaking

Jim Key: Yes, BUT… It is more important to internalize the message of your speech than it is to memorize the text. That way, if anything happens to distract from that word-for-word performance, it won’t derail you. (Something distracted me, and I started off my 2003 WCPS speech differently than I’d written it.)

Me: Thanks so much for pointing out the diff between memorizing and internalizing, Jim. And starting your speech differently shows the power of internalizing.

Jim Key: Perhaps an even better example of the power of internalizing is that during the 2000 [sic] WCPS Finals, I completely forgot where I was at in my speech *during* my speech (About halfway through). I did a quick “start-from-the-beginning, fast-forward-to-that-moment” and my mind, and resume. On the video, it just looks like a really nice pause 🙂

Me: WOW! That’s crazy lol. And right in the middle of it all. I assume 2000’s speech was memorized word-for-word, but 2003’s had the extra internalizing working for you.

Jim Key: I wasn’t in the Finals in 2000. I’ll assume that you mean 2001, and say that what you’ve said is pretty accurate. Though there was a point where I spontaneously decided to make a tweak…to pause after asking the audience to sing the Barney song with me…to allow time for a reaction. And what it got was a pretty significant reaction.

Me: Yes, 2001; sorry. Cool that you spontaneously asked the audience to sing the Barney song. That’s ballzy – and awesome!

Jim Key: Asking them wasn’t the spontaneous part. I had planned to do that, but the idea still scared me such that I decided to ask and then rush right into singing it. Something in my head said ‘lay it out there and wait’. The response was beyond what I could’ve hoped for.

Me: Whoa, so the “lay it out there and wait” part was the spontaneous tweak. And the audience totally came through. That must have felt amazing, that the audience was “with you” on this.

Jim Key: It did. Gauging by the way they reacted to the MC’s briefing, and during the early part of my speech, I had a sense that they’d be with me. I just didn’t know it to that degree. Looking back, I think many (if not all) speeches that stand out take some type of risk or do something differently. In 2001, that was it for me.

Me: Thanks so much for your time and behind-the-scenes.

Lance Miller – 2005 World Champion of Public Speaking

Lance Miller: I knew it word for word – but I did not memorize it – there is a huge difference!

Jock Elliot – 2011 World Champion of Public Speaking

Jock Elliot: Yes. For all my [5-7 min.] competition speeches, I memorize them. In fact, I go further than that, I internalize them so that they as natural and easy as breathing.

For other [longer] presentations, while I write them out as clearly as I can to make sure I get all my points in the right order, I then reduce that to dot points, perhaps using several key phrases but otherwise, just talking naturally and conversationally about the points being made.

Randy Harvey – 2004 World Champion of Public Speaking

Randy Harvey: Of course I did. But only because I wanted to get the message across.

Ryan Avery – 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking

Ryan Avery: Yes sir!

Craig Valentine – 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking

Craig Valentine: I believe so. It was a long time ago but I believe I did. However, I never wrote it down.

Mark Brown – 1995 World Champion of Public Speaking

Mark Brown: I did.

Me: Thanks so much, Mark. Appreciate the help.

Mark Brown: It’s important that they (Toastmasters club members) understand WHY they should memorize.

Me: That’d definitely be helpful. Do you have a recommendation for what I can tell my club to help them understand why it’s important for them to memorize?

Mark Brown: Good writing creates a good speech. Memorizing ensures that good writing isn’t forgotten.

The best and most descriptive language doesn’t necessarily flow from one’s mouth spontaneously. Word, phrase & sentence selection are critical, and even if one thinks of some great ones at any given time, if they aren’t practiced and memorized, they will be forgotten.

Me: That totally makes sense. One of my club members writes great descriptive material and she wants to be able to deliver it without notes. Thanks much. I’ll share this with her and the club.

Darren LaCroix – 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking

Darren LaCroix: Internalize, don’t memorize

Me: Thanks much, Darren. I guess “internalization” is a big step past memorization?

Darren LaCroix: Yes, but also not word for word. See my recent blog post about: TED-fluence on www.darrenlacroix.com

Me: Awesome; thanks for the direction, Darren.

Internalizing

Enough of the World Champs mentioned internalizing their speech for me to take it seriously. They go the extra mile by going beyond the memorization phase: practice > memorize > internalize.

What does internalize mean? As Jim Key put it, “I internalized my speech so that even in the event of a distraction I would not be thrown off.”

Practice is like: You draw a map of directions to your new job and you follow the map until you get there. Or, you punch the address in to your phone and let Siri guide you.

Memorize is like: You drive the same route enough times that you don’t need the map or Siri anymore. You’ve memorized the names of the street signs.

Internalize is like: Forget Siri, forget the map, forget the street signs. You can drive to work blindfolded. It’s second-nature.

There’s a second theme that bubbled to the surface too: WHY memorizing is important.

Mark Brown: Good writing creates a good speech. Memorizing ensures that good writing isn’t forgotten. The best and most descriptive language doesn’t necessarily flow from one’s mouth spontaneously. Word, phrase & sentence selection are critical, and even if one thinks of some great ones at any given time, if they aren’t practiced and memorized, they will be forgotten. More resources:

How To Practice A 5-7 Minute Toastmasters Speech

You will discover that some techniques for practicing your speech work well, while others do not. My approach for practicing a speech is unique to me, so it’s important for you to gather advice from others as well. Research which patterns, practices and procedures work best for you to present a 5-7 minute speech, without notes, while coming across as confident and natural.

I added Ryan Avery‘s advice and write my speech in as close to poem form as possible. Then I took the advice of a number of World Champions of Public Speaking, like Ed Tate, and I memorize every word (for a 5-7 min speech). I then take my printed-out speech outside to my practice area and practice my speech out loud at least 6 times. This is my first of many run-throughs to get a feel for the stage and timing.

I’m also going through my stage positions while practicing out loud. I discovered that my stage positions also help me remember my next line/story.

After practicing my speech in my practice space over a week (3-6 times per day), then I don’t need my printed-out speech anymore. The speech has become part of me because it’s been marinating throughout my practice sessions.

At this point, I start doing an exercise that Ed Tate recommends: saying my speech at 2x it’s normal speed. It’s tough-going at first, but I find it very helpful.

There also comes a time when I don’t practice my speech at all – because I’m sick of all the damn practice. I take a break and come back to it a week later. This break, like a much-needed vacation, does wonders for being confident and sounding natural.

World-renowned speech coach, Patricia Fripp, advises that writing out your speech in a logical sequence helps you remember it better.

You Just Won Your Toastmasters District Speech Contest – Now What?

Congratulations on winning your District Toastmasters International Speech contest!

Now what?

  1. Grab a copy of your Toastmasters District speech and upload it to YouTube so you can get it evaluated by previous World Champions, Advanced Toastmasters Clubs, mentors.
  2. Start developing your second speech, for Finals, right now! You will be presenting 2 speeches at the International speech contest: one for Semifinals (typically your District speech), and a completely new speech for Finals.

Get insight from previous World Champions

Contact previous World Champions and see how much they charge to evaluate your District-winning speech.

*Darren LaCroix: “I do help people for free once they have won their district speech contest. Why? First, helping people who contact me out of a field of 81 is much more manageable than 35,000. Also, I want to give back as my mentors did, and the [District] winners have earned that opportunity. The speech contest is a self-discovery process. It is powerful as a growth tool, if you have the proper intentions. If your entire goal is to win for ego purposes or to launch your career, please do not contact me or invest in any of my programs.”

Get insight from 2nd- and 3rd-place World Champions

If they’re not competing in this year’s International speech contest, last year’s 2nd-place and 3rd-place World Champions are a great resource. Find them here.

Get insight from Advanced Toastmasters clubs

Contact your District’s Advanced Clubs for feedback and evaluations on your District speech – maybe even mentorship. They’re also the perfect environment to practice your Final speech.

One of my go-to Advanced Toastmasters Clubs in Sacramento, CA is Reveilliers Toastmasters. They really kicked my butt, told me the truth and provided top-notch evaluations. Most Advanced Club members have attended many International conferences and have heard many Semifinal and Final speeches over the years. An Advanced Club will tell you if you’re up-to-par or not – and, generally, how to fix it.

Get insight from your previous District winners

Contact your District’s previous District winners for help, advice, even mentorship.

Study previous World Champion speeches

There’s a huge difference between presenting at your District and the competition you’re going to face at the Semifinal and World Champion levels. Notice their deliberate use of the stage to set up scenes with characters and dialogue.

Watch previous Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking speeches.

How To Take The Fear Out Of Competing – Workshop

Take The Fear Out Of A Speech Competition – Workshop

During the workshop (part of the Regret Nothing™ Series), I asked audience members to describe what their speech competition fears are:

  • I’m afraid I’ll trip and fall on the way to the stage.
  • Everybody is looking at me and judging me.
  • I’m overly concerned about what I’m wearing and how I look.
  • I just want to get my speech over-and-done with.
  • I get afraid just by looking at the podium/lectern/stage.
  • I’m afraid I’ll get up there, open my mouth, and nothing will come out.

The workshop is broken into 2 segments: before a speech competition, and during a speech competition.

Before a Speech Competition

  • Mental
  • Emotional
  • Physical

During a Speech Competition

  • Eye Contact
  • Fill the Stage
  • Recovery

Personal examples and mistakes, been-there-done-that advice and tips, and wisdom from former World Champions of Public Speaking.


Event: Sacramento Toastmasters District 39 TLI (Toastmasters Leadership Institute) – Enrichment Session
Date: July 19, 2014
Location: University of Phoenix – Sacramento Valley Campus, 2860 Gateway Oaks Dr., Room 131, Sacramento, CA, 95833
Duration: 1 hour, 20 minutes


Handout Materials

Take The Fear Out Of Competing Workshop Cover - Reid Walley - Regret Nothing series
Download Cover PDF Printout

Take The Fear Out Of Competing Workshop page 2 - Reid Walley - Regret Nothing series
Download Page 2 PDF Printout

Take The Fear Out Of Competing Workshop page 3 - Reid Walley - Regret Nothing series
Download Page 3 PDF Printout

Book mentioned during the workshop

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek.

At our 2013 Toastmasters District 39 Fall Conference in Sacramento, CA, Ryan Avery stated how much he wished he’d read this book BEFORE he wrote his 2012 World Championship-winning speech.

How I Prepared for the 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest

Step 1: Getting feedback from local Advanced Toastmasters clubs

Reality check!

A couple of brutely-honest – and painful to hear – District 39 Advanced Club evaluators were concerned that my District-winning speech wouldn’t hold up to the competition I was going to face 3 months later at Semifinals on Aug 22, 2013 in Cincinnati, OH. Turns out they were right! The 3 months between District and Semifinals, my speech changed by 50%. It was much more work, time and stress than I anticipated. Plus, I had to create a completely new speech to present during the World Champion of Public Speak competition!

Getting educated.

I watched – and re-watched – previous World Champion of Public Speaking winners on YouTube: Jim Key (2003), Randy Harvey (2004), Lance Miller (2005), Jock Elliot (2011) and Ryan Avery (2012). To my surprise, the previous-year’s winning speakers had overly-large gestures, were quite animated and covered the whole stage. Not something you’d ever see in a board meeting or from a politician running for office. But for an inspirational speech delivered in front of 2,000+ attendees you need to act over-the-top because most of the audience can barely see you.

Acting silly!

After reviewing World Champion’s winning speeches, it reminded me of silly, over-the-top, Vaudeville performances. But that’s simply because I had been used to presenting Toastmasters speeches in actual board rooms and small venues (15-150 people). The World Champion of Public Speaking contest is in a convention hall that is literally the size a football field, and filled with almost 2,000 people. You have to look alive and be entertaining!

I also watched everything I could get my hands on from Hall of Fame Speaker, Patricia Fripp, and 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking, Craig Valentine! Ryan Avery (2012 WCPS) has also kicked off a teaching Website called How To Be A Speaker.

Step 2: Re-crafting my District-winning speech for the International competition

Right off the bat, I was in trouble! My evaluators presented a long list of good reasons that my District-winning speech was going to get clobbered at the next round of competitions. I made 4 big changes:

  1. Edited my speech to be more International in its appeal. Since I live in California, I needed to delete/replace any local, cultural and colloquial references that an International audience – and International judges – may not easily relate to.
  2. Altered my speech from mostly-narration to a good mix of narration and dialog.
  3. Since my evaluators said I came across as very preachy, I had to figure out a way around this.
  4. Integrated some of Randy Harvey’s S.C.R.E.A.M. speech-writing formula:
    • Simile*
    • Contrast
    • Rhyme
    • Echo
    • Alliteration
    • Metaphor*

*Now I had to figure out the difference between a Simile and a Metaphor. (A simile is a metaphor, but not all metaphors are similes.)

One of my evaluators, Tobias Stockler, helped me clarify the analogy for my speech title A Good Harvest. After grilling me for a few minutes I frustratingly replied, “A Good Harvest is like a farmer trying to raise good crops.” “Perfect.” he said, “Now the audience will know how to relate to the idea of A Good Harvest.”

I also added Patricia Fripp’s and Ryan Avery’s “circular technique” (a matching opening & closing). I cut out less-obvious references to my core message, reduced 4 story lines to just 2, reduced closing calls-to-action from five to one, created a more central tagline message (“reach out and mend a broken fence”), and added a “WHY” to the story (“happiness”).

  • Added more dialogue.
  • Added reference to book title in dialogue.
  • Added Patricia Fripp’s “Circular technique” (opening/closing speech with the same sentence, story, stage location).
  • Reduced my calls-to-action at the end from 5 to 1.
  • Reduced the amount of stories.
  • Spread storylines across different parts of the stage.
  • Added simile/metaphor: “Divorce is like a broken fence”
  • Added a call-to-action at end: “Reach out and mend a broken fence”
  • Added definition/analogy of A Good Harvest: “Like a farmer trying to raise good crops, parents trying to raise good kids.”
  • Deleted references to getting arrested and Dad calling every Sunday.
  • Added alliteration: “shorts and a short-sleeve shirt”
  • Added “why” I apologized to my ex-wife: to be happy.
  • Added “why” a good harvest is important: raises value of society.
  • Added alliteration/description of Dad: shorts and short-sleeve shirt.

Be prepared to make last-minute changes to your speech. At International, 2 hours before the contest, our Contest Chair informed us to address her as “Madam Contest Chair.” This “address” was completely different from the standard “Mister/Madam Toastmaster” that I was used to at my club and local speech contests.

A big thanks to the following District 39 members for their evaluations and support: Danny Pastores, Ceci Dunn, Zack Souza, George Jarosik, David Zic, Rick Pierce, Tobias Stockler, Rick & Marcia Sydor, Herb Long, Susan Hawbaker, Cliff Brackett, Tracy Harrison, Brian Hatano, Ruth Maloney.

What really helped me parse all of the feedback I was receiving, and to put it into context, were District 39’s previous winners: Russell Marsan (2012 District 39 Winner), Jeffrey Purtee (2011 District 39 Winner) and Jim Brennan (World Champion runner-up, District 39).

Step 3: Practicing for a much larger stage

Toastmasters outdoor practice space, Midtown Sacramento, CA
Toastmasters outdoor practice space, Midtown Sacramento, CA

Five weeks before the International Semifinals, I found an outdoor practice space in Midtown Sacramento, CA: 50 feet wide and 15 feet deep. And although it was outside in the glaring sun (or pouring rain), it was perfect. And the occasional foot-traffic helped me get used to distractions, as well as a few people that stopped and watched for a moment and asked what in the world I was doing – LOL.

Practicing staging and full-out body language took much more energy than I thought it would. The first time I practiced for an hour-and-a-half, and I was exhausted from the sun, jumping up and down, going through larger-than-life animations and just plain covering a lot of ground. A nice workout for sure:)

Editing my speech after an Advanced club evaluation had to include editing my staging as well. Does a new line of text put me on a different part of the stage? Am I going to end up spending too much time on one side of the stage?

I had to get use to the stage as one of the characters in my speech. I also had to allow for the extra time that walking across the stage takes up. In my 5-7 minute speech, I discovered that moving around on the stage adds approximately 60 seconds to my speech. So I had to cut out 60-seconds-worth of content to accommodate setting scenes/stories at stage-left, center-stage and stage-right.

Lessons Learned – 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest

What I learned: I have a lot more to learn! At this level of the game – at the Semifinals and World Champion of Public Speaking contests – it’s the minor things that make a major difference!

Do NOT go over time

Two of my competitors were automatically disqualified because they went over the 7 minute and 30 second time limit. So disappointing. All that hard work, dedication, extra time away from family and friends to prepare, practice, edit, travel – and to go over time… UGH!

There were 2 reasons these contestants went over time:

  • One speaker forgot part of their speech, had a long pause, and went over time.
  • The other speaker got caught off guard by an audience member’s supportive applause, got completely off track and went over time.

Lesson I learned: practice a truncated closing in case I forget my lines or get distracted – or both!

During the 2013 Toastmasters International speech competition season I forgot my lines twice, once at my Area contest and once at my District contest. The ONLY thing that saved my butt was the regular participation in my club’s Table Topics section! It isn’t perfect but it really helps me “fake” my way back into my speech. As far as making up for the lost time, I definitely need more practice altering my closing on the fly, so I don’t go over time.

Insight from judges

A previous-year’s judge spoke with me for 30 minutes about what she looks for, how she judges, what bores her and that I, as a speaker, need to really grab her attention within the first 20 seconds of my speech. Otherwise, she’s thinking about what she’s going to order for dinner after the contest.

I also spoke with people who sat in the same contest room and listened to all 3 contest groups back-to-back (approx. 6 hours), and what patterns they see emerge (topics, speaking-styles, copycats) and what becomes stale and obvious. In particular, one former judge mentioned getting tired of hearing about cancer and death all day long! They became more of a “downer” rather than inspiring, she said.

Get a Toastmasters coach

Competing at International requires 2 speeches: one for the Semifinal contest and another speech for the World Champion of Public Speaking contest. The speech for WCPS contest must be brand new, and it must never have been presented during the current year’s contests (Club, Area, Division or District). And they have to be presented only 2 days apart (the Semifinal contest was on Thursday, Aug 22, 2013; the World Championship contest was on Saturday, Aug 24, 2013).

So when do I start writing my Finals speech?  I Tweeted 2012 World Champion, Ryan Avery, and he said I should only start writing my Finals speech after winning at the District competition.

All of the winners that I saw at the 2013 Convention thanked their coaches, who were all sitting in the audience. Even the speakers who didn’t win had coaches. There are plenty of 2nd-place World Champions – and a few 1st-place World Champions – from previous years walking the hallways at the convention. They’re all easy to talk to and exchange business cards with.

When I do this again, I’ll get a coach. I’ll also put together a roster of Advance Club members and District-level Toastmasters that I trust to move me forward.

Pick a better speech topic next year

There is a difference between my local District 39 audience and judges and International’s audience and judges. A few 2nd place World Champions I met mentioned that I should craft a speech to win at my District level, then re-craft it to win at Semifinals, as well as separately craft a winning World Champion speech. A few of my District’s advanced-club members observed the need to transform my District-winning speech for Semifinals. And guess what, those few local Toastmasters that told me straight-out that my District-winning speech would not hold up at Semifinals were right. And I’m putting them in my mastermind group.

Also, the difference between my 2nd place Semifinal winning speech and Chris Nachtrab’s 1st place Semifinal winning speech was obvious to me: all things being equal, his speech simply touched more hearts and had far fewer words than mine did. He talked about family, memories and cherishing life’s important moments. His speech was easy to follow and easy to swallow.

Get more practice time in front of groups

Practice in strange, distracting, embarrassing situations, like Ryan Avery did while training for his 2012 win. He even practiced on the sidewalks of his hometown. Speak at other organizations: Kiwanis, Rotary, etc. Ryan says he spoke to 50 Toastmasters clubs in the 3 months leading up to his 2012 victory. From my calculation, it was like a second full-time job.

Networking for the future

I meet Ryan Avery, 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking and his wife, Chelsea. I also met a couple of 2nd-place World Champions from previous years, including Kwong Yue Yang, the 2011 2nd-place World Champion (his 2011 speech “Fortune Cookie“). Kwong is the nicest guy, with helpful advice for me and anybody else who was around. I also met Douglas Wilson, the 2006 2nd-place World Champion. Douglas sat down and mentored me one-on-one for more than an hour. He was also super-supportative of all the 88 Semifinal contestants who came in from all over the world. Kwong’s and Douglas’s knowledge and wisdom is readily available in the hallways, dinners and educational sessions.

This is another reason to attend the International Convention every year: everybody’s there and easy to talk to.