Memorize & Insight

by Doug Stevenson 2001

When it comes to memorization, there are two very different perspectives. One speaker argues that memorization will hinder their performance, making it stilted and hollow. Another counters that memorization has enhanced their performance, allowing greater depth and expressiveness. While their perspectives may differ, their objectives are the same. Both seek to exceed audience expectations with a dynamic performance and stimulating content.

Having been a professional actor for thirty years, I have spoken the words of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare. These playwrights labored over each word and phrase. They spent countless hours thinking about the plot and story line. They meticulously developed the relationships between the characters and chose different styles of language for different people. Memorizing their words, especially those of Shakespeare, was hard work. But in the moment of performance, when it all came together and the audience laughed and cried as if on cue, the work proved to be worthwhile. The language of the playwrights worked every time.

Between the first and the second day of my Story Theater Retreats, my students go home and work on their material. They think about their story, write it out and in some cases, memorize bits and pieces. They spend more time crafting the words and images than many of them have ever spent. On the second day they present the same story in its revised version. The difference is dramatic, and in some cases astounding. The language comes alive, the emotional connection deepens and the humor points are clarified. The transformation from one day to the next is consistently positive.

The reason many of my students have never memorized their material prior to the retreat is that they have never written material worthy of memorizing. This is not to say that they have been speaking junk for years, quite the opposite. Their material is very well developed and in some cases has been perfected over time to the point of mastery. They know the material so well that they allow themselves to get sloppy. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t. When it works, it’s magic. When it doesn’t, no big deal, it’s still good enough. Sloppy equals lazy. Sloppy results from lack of discipline. Sloppy costs you money every time you speak and don’t get referrals.

I am suggesting that you can consistently make the magic happen by crafting your words and images, writing them like a playwright, and then memorizing them. Write material that is worth memorizing and then do so. After you’ve written a few sentences that state precisely and eloquently what you want to say and you have memorized them, you will be amazed at how liberating it feels. You will no longer be struggling to find the right word during a presentation, you will be free to interpret the words that you already know work. Rather than constricting you, the memorization frees you.

Certain songs always give me a tingle when I hear them on the radio. Even though I have heard them before, they work time and again. It is the same with memorized material. Do the work up front. Write wonderful language and create beautiful imagery, and the words and images will work time and again. By memorizing them you will be increasing the odds that you get it right every time. Write material worth memorizing and people will quote you instead of Lao Tzu or Covey. When Barbara Streisand sings the song PEOPLE, she doesn’t change the lyrics for each audience. The song works as is. She let’s the audience come to her!

To memorize or not to memorize, that is the question. Whether tis nobler to wing it and get lucky from time to time or to find the discipline to memorize and be consistent. Aye, there’s the rub!




I’ve now coached over 200 people. Some have material that dances on the surface and some have material that deeply explores the human condition. Most speak from somewhere in the vast middle. In my opinion, the speakers who have the most powerful impact have one thing in common. They possess insight. What is insight? It is the ability to look inside and find a profound truth. Inside what? Themselves and their experience. They see what everyone sees and choose to go deeper. They ask why? Not why for themselves alone. They ask why for humanity. They seek universal truths that apply to the human condition. They are seekers of the truth, the ultimate profound truth that can only be found by looking inside.

It is easy to look outside and observe. Observation allows us to stand aloof, apart, separate from. From the observation tower of a detached perspective, we can avoid pain. We ride on the surface and comment on it. We read the works of those who HAVE gone deep and employ their insight. As speakers, we make statements that are genuine and purposeful. Our work is good, truly good. And yet we still strive for brilliance, not seeming to understand that it is here inside us, not out there.

In avoiding the pain of our past, we ride on the surface. By not looking deep inside, we speak from a place of comfort. It is natural to do so. We have worked hard for comfort, fought for our sanity, struggled to gain distance from our fears. Thus, our stories are good, but not great. They amuse and educate. And for many, that is enough. But if we do not look inside, we cannot teach the deep truth that is hidden there. If we won’t go there, our audiences don’t get to go there with us. We must be brave explorers and share our discoveries.

I am a story coach. I help people master their message. They come to me because they know that I have acting techniques up the ying yang to help them. They have seen me do my dance and tell my tales and they are impressed. They see the actor and the comedian and the technique and they want those tools to work for them. What they don’t know, is that before I can help them, they must remove their mask. The speaker persona, the speaker voice, the speaker character must be removed. It is a phenomenon that I am encountering more and more. Somewhere along the line, many speakers take on a personality that is false. Many of them are aware of it when they come to me, many are not. It is the smile, the upbeat voice, the armor of false professionalism. It is a mask.

Insight is the ability to look inside and make profound sense of the pain and fear of the past. It is the realization that only the truth will serve, that authenticity is the foundation from which we build our speaking careers. Insight is the truth. All stories that have power must reveal true insight. But insight is elusive. Our minds run from the truth as if it were a hot poker. And yet the only way to insight is through the darkness and into the light of understanding. Only then can we craft stories that mesmerize and transform. Once the truth is established, the words and images arrive on schedule. Our stories leave the surface and dive down into an ocean of clarity. That is the journey that I speak of in story structure. It is a journey from safety to danger and back again. Without the danger, the story is safe; the listener an observer rather than a participant. Only one question needs to be asked. What obstacle did you overcome to get here? Let me hear that story again. I want to hear the truth gained from your profound insight. Then we can begin. The mask effortlessly falls away and we can craft a masterpiece together, a masterpiece worth memorizing.

The first time you experience something real and natural, it’s called life. When you replicate it, it’s called acting. Acting is truth, replicated. Give me the truth and I can guide you to your own magnificence.


Copyright 2005 by Doug Stevenson. Reprinted with permission. Doug Stevenson is the creator of the Story Theater Method. He is an author, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. Reach Doug at or 800.573.6196