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Making it Memorable: 7 Tips to Memorizing Your Speech or Set

It's not so cool to have notes these days, since everybody wants to look like their words of wisdom and hilarious observations just fly off the top of their head.  Reality shows have become popular because people like the illusion that whomever they're watching is showing who they really are, not just reading from a script.  And those same viewers have come to expect more spontaneity from speakers and entertainers.  But it's really hard to be spontaneous and in the moment -- to really connect with your audience -- if you're constantly glancing at some piece of paper to know what to say next. 
When you have your act memorized so well that it's second nature, it frees you to make more eye contact, to read your audience better, and to notice subtleties about what's going on around.  That kind of relaxed awareness helps you really connect, because instead of just reading - you're communicating.

A lot of comics have trouble memorizing a longer set, so here's seven tips:
1.  Start with an outline.  Write out your set list, and practice taking a quick look and then running through each joke (from setup to laugh).

2.  Know what comes next.  The hardest part in memorizing a long set isn't so much remembering the jokes, as knowing WHICH joke comes after the one you just finished.  If you arrange items in a natural flow, and give code words that you can remember easily to each joke or chunk, it helps to navigate from joke to joke.

For example, my set list might be: Swedish Jokes, Political, Jewish, etc.  Each code word reminds me of a chunk where I know the joke well.  After I've broken it down into ten code words, I just have ten things to memorize, and I can find a natural association between them.  (Swedish people can be political but few are Jewish.  Two or three sentences like that are a lot easier to memorize than a few pages in a notebook!)

3.  Talk it and walk it.  Comedians stand up --- literally - partly because studies have shown the brain works faster and more efficiently when you're on your feet.  So instead of reading jokes off of a computer screen, I find taking walks and practicing my routine out loud really helps.  If you run through your routine out loud 20 times on a walk, you'll know it.  (I like to have my Bluetooth headset in one ear so my neighbors don't think I have an imaginary friend.)

4.  Have a backup.  Even when you have your act memorized forwards and backwards, most of us will always have a little twinge of fear that we could forget what's next under the nervous pressure of being in front of a packed house - especially if a joke falls flat.

Having your list of code words as a trigger on an index card in your pocket, scrawled on your hand, or on the screen of your iPhone can make you relax a little and focus more on your audience.  And if you DO have a lapse, think of a clever way to take a peek without tipping everyone off, or getting a laugh out of it when you do.  ("Swedish, Political, Jewish, Wash left hand.")

5.  Let it go.  I always feel that if I forget something, then that just means I wasn't meant do it.  Being on stage is a heightened experience, and you intuitively know what will and won't work.

Sometimes forcing things in the order you planned them is not the best flow, and you have to toss out the order you planned and live in the moment by pressing ahead.  If you keep forgetting a joke ... it probably wasn't funny enough to be worth remembering.

6.  Use your sense memory.  Sometimes I plan to perform chunks of material on different portions of the stage.  When I move to a different spot, it triggers my memory that this physical place is also the place in my act where I do a certain bit.  My body helps my brain remember.

7.  Don't sigh - breathe!  Finally -- if you go blank, here's something that always works:  Take a deep breath in and out without any words.  This will relax you -- and your act will come back to you.  I've never had this fail, and that extra oxygen might even supercharge your brain to riff out a few NEW jokes even better than what you planned!



Anonymous said...

Good tips, I like to record chunks. Sit down say them out loud. Make the recording into an mp3 put it on the ipod and listen to it 300 times. It's just like learning lyrics by listening to a song. Over time they will be burned into your brain.

Scotty Gunther

Brian Henchey said...

I don't have ANY of my act memorized. I know now that means it's all worth forgetting... ;)

-Brian Henchey
Talk Show Host / Comedian (Seeking next radio/TV opportunity)
Boston, MA
Heard on 100.1 WBRS-FM/Waltham, MA 4 PM Mondays & Wednesdays --
And on 104.9 WRBB-FM/Boston, MA 4 PM Fridays --

Jeff Jeffers said...

Good stuff Judy. I am using all of them, especially the out line and code words. #6 is especially interesting. I thought: What about some of these tiny stages where you can't move much? (Stages sooo small I can barely move shows how ridiculous my career is right?) Maybe #6 sense memory applies to how I physically end the preceeding act out? makes sense. If my act out ends with grabbing my head or looking to the left etc... maybe that would apply.
PS I love your website re-design. looks great.

Older, but not done yet said...

Great stuff Judy, thanks! I remember hearing or reading that Jerry Seinfeld had once said that you should know your act so well, that if somebody threw you out of an airplane, you could do your set comfortably all the way down.

Forgetting my material was always my biggest fear, and it has only happened maybe 2 or 3 times, and then it was for just a brief moment. I would open my mouth and start to say something else, maybe just 2 or 3 words and the next joke would always come back and I would recover nicely.

I too have left out jokes that I had meant to include, but feel the same way as you do, that it wasn't meant to be said at that particular time.

Karen Robertson said...

When I bought your Comedy Career in a Box, you kept encouraging students to get out and walk. It took me a long time to buy into it, but that is the best advise. 1. I carry my script or notes and study one page while I walk, then I jog 100 paces and see if I can do the first page without looking. Then I repeat that until I have the first page and do the same with the following pages. 2. passers-by just think I'm learning a script because they see the paper.
3. After I've finished the whole act page by page, then I walk it out and see if I can do the whole act. 4. The best part is that I've walked-jogged over 3 miles in no time, act is solid, and I'm in shape for the next triathlon.

Paula Faust said...

Judy - your stuff is golden. I look forward to all of your posts as if Im going to school that day. Thank you for caring about us comics!!! your are the greatest.
Paula Faust.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

As always, excellent advice, Judy! I recently judged a contest and was shocked at how many comics came to the stage with notes--in a competition! I''ll be sharing this post.

Kate said...

In my short experience, I have found that knowing my set pretty well at home is not enough to remember it on stage! I have to know it perfectly beforehand, and even then, as you say, some jokes may fall through the cracks. Your tips on remembering the flow of the sketch and using key words are very helpful. Here in France, no one ever uses notes on stage, unless it's clearly a prop (a funny letter, etc.).

Rebecca Lee said...

I like reading your blog. Lots of great tips. Thanks!

Lindsey said...

Judy, You are always an inspiration, as you trigger thoughts and musings about "the act" and incorporations. I have a chronic illness which seriously impacts my memory at times. I have reoccuring nightmares about "forgetting my lines." I have imagined, after reading this article, that incorporating note cards into my act could do double duty by illustrating, emphasizing and buffooning this shortcoming. I'm thinking that it could be quite hysterical. As always, I cannot take credit for this revelation. Thanks

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