Holy hell you booked that big corporate industrial payday! You’re ecstatic, elate, and euphoric. Maybe you will buy that vintage jacket on Poshmark, after all this will put you in the green for the rest of the month.
Bad financial decisions aside, we can save that topic for another blog, these sorts of jobs are the bread and butter of most working actors. Industrials, internal commercials, ads, explainer videos, spokesperson, and corporations need good talent to get their message across. But, Mamet and Tarantino they are not.
Shortly after you book the job you will likely receive an email with the script. Then, the fear sets in.
As you open the attachment a block of text fills the screen. Line after line of jargony, long-winded copy that reads like stereo instructions scrolls on for page after page.
If your lucky that expertly crafted tome will be on a teleprompter (if you’re a bloody producer make sure that godforsaken text is on a teleprompter, especially if the actor is looking at the damn camera); however, odds are you’ve been saddled with rattling off dense text and tasked with making it sound natural, witty, and charming. What do you do?
At every talkback ever the one question that is always asked is, “How do you memorize all those lines?” Oddly enough, this is a fascination with the average person, and yet actors, despite doing this all the time, hate this question (get over yourself). Book after book is written on memory, recall, and the ability to learn things quickly--and yet, actors rarely like to share their secrets.
Sadly, there is no grimoire that contains the Secrets of Hermes that Shakespearean actors pass down to commercial sell-outs. Instead, the boring secret to all memorization is, like the old joke goes, “practice, practice, practice.”
Still, when it comes to the world of copy and commercials that can often be easier said than done. After all, who wants to practice saying acronyms and HR double-speak?
Having done over a hundred of these jobs myself, I’ve learned a few Do’s and Don’t’s when it comes to memorizing, shall we say, difficult text.
Most of my strategy is identical to how approach theatre and film, with a few exceptions. While not the primary focus of this blog, here are my three tried and true techniques I use for everything:
If there is one method above all others I love it is “Coding.” Once I’ve read a script, or at least gone through the script with the classic, “Bullshit, bullshit, my line, bullshit, bullshit, my line,” approach then I will set to coding Acts and Scenes.
While this sounds cooler than it is, this approach is simply taking the first letter of every word and writing it down. When I first started, I would write all my lines down by hand and then write the first letter of each word on a separate piece of paper. Now in my 30s, unfortunately, baseball has caught up with my arm and I can’t write an entire script out anymore. Plus, I believe this may have been excessive.
The point here is to move the text towards something less abstract and look at just the letters. This way, the words become symbols and your brain is already recalling what the symbol stands for in the context of the line.
Think of it as a bridge toward memory. First, you read the text. Then, you code it. Finally, with dozens of repetitions, you move away from the text and towards the code. Now, you can simply look at the page of letters and the lines will begin to come to you.
Still, this is not a hack. It’s simply a way of getting the reps in.
Say it out Loud
No matter what method you use, it all comes down to repetition, and there is no better way to repeat text than to say it out loud.
When we speak the lines we are getting three in one. First, we must read the text, then we must say it out loud, and finally, we hear ourselves saying it. Thus, in one go around our brain has registered the copy three times, as opposed to just once (reading it).
Furthermore, our job is to say lines out loud. In our head, we read smoothly, perfectly, and with deep inflection; however, when we try saying the lines out loud we suddenly find our voice flat, the words clunky, and the rhythm off.
If the first time you are saying the lines aloud, on your feet, is in front of the camera or in rehearsal, you’re in trouble.
David Mamet makes this joke in one of his books when he asks, “What’s the point of rehearsal? For the actors to memorize their lines.”
Say it out loud. Say it again, and again. The behind-the-scenes of a working actor are boring. Good, be boring. Be boring in life and brilliant on stage. As Oscar Wilde put it the only artists who are interesting in real life are “bad artists.”
We may be striking at the core of acting approaches here rather than memorization, but it is impossible for me to memorize a line if it means nothing to me.
When a writer wrote the line, they had a purpose: subtext, exposition, maybe they simply thought it was witty; however, I do not have access to what the writer was thinking. Sure, I can break apart a scene and look at the pieces of dramatic structure, but I will never truly know what the writer was thinking when they put that line in this text.
Therefore, no matter what the ultimate meaning of the story is, no matter what the writer’s intention was, I, the actor, must make the line make sense to me. It could be wrong, that’s why we have directors, but from the start, I must make it make sense to me.
How do I say this line as myself? What does it mean to me? What is my connection in life to a line such as this? Have I ever said it before? Has someone else said it before?
Furthermore, when it comes to corporate copy, this will save your life. Often, the writer was forced to include handbook information from PR and/or HR and the words you are forced to spew have never been said aloud before. Therefore, you get to play with it and make it yours.
Otherwise, you will read it like a bad SNL host.
Now that the lead is fully buried in this rolling smog of words, let’s get to the meat of the blog and talk about the actual mechanics of memorizing corporate work.
Give Yourself Time
Don’t cram. You’re not a stoned college student who needs to pass Econ 101. You are a professional and your job is to be the expert in A) Acting, B) Your part.
Working with a shoddy actor who barely knows their lines ruins the room from the start. Walk into a shoot with your lines half-baked and watch the energy in the room dissolve. Everyone’s day just got longer.
Don’t be that actor. There’s a myriad of reasons why you shouldn’t be that actor, but let’s go with, simply, don’t.
The best strategy is to start early. Memorization rarely comes in the form of instant recall. Photographic memories have been proven to be bullshit, and the people who compete in memory challenges explain it’s all a strategy.
Therefore, when it comes to text, give it time to breathe. Start working on it as soon as you have the script, so your anxiety and cortisol stay low. Having to memorize while your mind is running circles around the “failure” you will be if it’s not memorized, is a tragedy waiting to happen.
“But I work great under pressure.” Stop. You are a professional. Your job is to crush it on site. The way you do that is by knowing the lines like Tom Brady knows defenses.
On the day of a million things will be happening: coffee, makeup, costume, hair, rehearsal, lighting, awkward surface-level small talk with fellow actors. Don’t wait for “pressure” to fuel your mind.
Take it in Chunks
Do not try and memorize it all at once. The brain doesn’t work that way. Would you look at the list of U.S. Presidents and try and recall them at one time?
No. You build a working memory of 5, 10, then 15. You start small and then you add on.
Likewise, this works with copy as well. Start with the first line. Then, move to the second. Now, work on the paragraph. And so on and so forth.
Additionally, you will likely come to words and acronyms you do not understand. Make sure you know what the hell they mean. Again, this is like Shakespeare. Words have specific meanings to specific times and peoples, corporations included.
Figure them out and roll them into chunks.
This one is the fun one. Set goals and rewards. Delay gratification and set up rewards.
Coffee, donuts, and lactose-free ice cream they all work, but prime your mind to expect a reward. If you are working in chunks, set mini-goals and big goals; however, give your brain rewards for deep focus.
On the same topic, the mind cannot stay in a concentrated state for long. Fifty minutes with a ten to 15-minute break seems to be the sweet spot, however, it’s a law of diminishing return.
This is another reason to give yourself time. Typically, I will start with deep focus sessions of 50 minutes followed by a ten-minute break. Then 40 and 20, 30 and 30, and typically a long break before returning to the lines later.
Each round I will reward myself with something. Usually something small like playing a game or grabbing a coffee, but hell, I’ve even used new shoes as bait for the brain.
The process of chunking, time, and rewards creates the key to memory: moving short-term information into long-term. The chunks give you manageable sizes, the breaks force the brain to recall, and the rewards provide the stimulation needed to keep going.
Try Different Approaches
At some point, you will hit a wall. Take a break. When the break doesn’t work, try a different approach. Writing the lines, singing the lines, walking the lines, recording the lines, listening to the lines, whatever you can do to change it up and create something new, try it.
Again, this is rout work and repetition and the brain needs new stimuli to stay interested. Actors got into entertainment for a reason, and likely we are not Tesla sitting alone in an attic with a stack of books.
Challenges and False Deadlines
The brain loves games and challenges. Set a goal to memorize a page a day. Tell yourself you will have the script beat two days prior to the shoot. These sorts of false goals prime the brain to strive for excellence.
Companies know this, and you should too. Setting unrealistic deadlines works miracles, after all, you typically take as much time to complete a task as you give yourself. Therefore, use this to your advantage. Certainly, you can move the goalpost, but the more work you put in to meet your artificial deadline the easier the lines will come in the crunch.
Often when I am doing teleprompter work or corporate work I will play a game with myself, “How close to word perfect can I be? Can I get this in one take?” Little games to challenge the brain and make the text a fun thing.
This is born out of my training with Pig Iron and “Finding the jeu.” With any work from Commedia to corporate, there is play. An actor’s job is to find joy in all things. What is unique about this experience? How can I have fun with it?
The more fun I am having, the more fun people around you will have. The more prepared and professional you are the lighter the burden to carry is. Then, even if you mess up it doesn’t matter because it’s not a “lost take” because you are unprepared, but a gaff that happened.
Always remember, everyone is allowed to mess up. A cameraman botches the slide, the sound guy forgot to press record, and the director’s phone goes off. Everyone on set is allowed to make a mistake.
What we are not allowed to do is fail to be prepared. The cameraman cannot leave the lens at home. The sound guy cannot forget the mics. The actor must know their lines.
Don’t be the actor the crew tells horror stories about. Bad acting is acceptable, and usually a question of taste anyway; however, if you’ve been cast then the acting is approved. Everything is forgiven except for the cardinal sin of “Not knowing your lines.”
When it comes down to it the actor has one job, “Be prepared.” We all know some days the tears don’t come, the back hurts, the stomach aches, things happen; however, when the shit hits the fan there is one thing that must remain constant, “Be prepared,” and role with the punches.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.