It’s a hard fact of being a speaker or presenter: sometimes your train of thought gets derailed. It happens even to the most experienced, the most eloquent and the best prepared among us. And it’s no fun for any of us!
If you’re just talking with friends or family, this sort of blank-out is just a bit embarrassing, and easily forgivable. But what if you’re in front a group of important clients, professionals, investors or the like – people you’re most definitely there to impress? You can’t just hit “rewind” and have another try. And “hold on – what was I saying?” isn’t going to do much for your image – or your composure!
One possible explanation for such brief memory gaps may have to do with the volume of information your short-term memory can retain at any given time. When you’re delivering a presentation, there’s a lot to pay attention to, and a lot of information to process all at once. You can’t focus entirely on what you’re saying – you also have to keep your slides rolling, observe the audience and process their reactions, stay aware of and adjust your own bearing and presence answer questions, deal with interruptions…in short, you are busy. Since your short-term memory can retain just so much, it’s understandable that you might lose your place now and then.
Just as with presenting’s other inherent challenges, there are ways to deal with this sort of lapse when you’re up in front of an audience. Here are four tips for calmly re-catching your train of thought, if it happens to get away from you mid-speech.
It’s a normal part of preparing a presentation to work out what you’ll say while each of your slides is on the screen. As you do this, and practice your presentation, the thoughts that go with each slide become associated in your mind with the image of the slide itself. Because of this, you can use your slides as visual cues, should you lose your train of thought. If you just can’t seem to find what you meant to say next, take a quick look at the slide on the screen (or on your laptop or tablet, if you’ve got it in front of you). Just that visual might be all the cue you need. You might need to glance at the previous slide to get reoriented – either by looking at your device, or by clicking back to the last slide for just a moment. Not the smoothest move of all time, but better than standing there scratching your head and losing all your remaining composure.
If you won’t be using any presentation slides, this visual cue technique becomes a bit trickier. Try to pair up a mental image with each of your key points, as you prepare and practice your talk. If index cards are an option, you can even draw your series of cue images on cards, and sequence them to match your speech. Then, when speaking, it’s just a matter of turning over your cards and glancing at them (subtly, please) as you go along. If you lose your place mentally, another quick look at your card should get you back on track. If you don’t feel your drawing skills are up to this technique, you could substitute key words or phrases for images on your stack of “prompter” cards.
Another method of getting yourself back on track is to do a fast verbal review of what you’ve covered so far. Here are a few examples of how you might lead into such a recap:
- So far we’ve covered with the first three stages of the sales process: Prospect, Approach, and Interview.
- Before we proceed to the next stage, let me reiterate the key points we’ve discussed so far.
- My previous points are critical to understanding the next stage, so let’s quickly review them.
Somewhere in presenting your little review, you’re almost sure to re-capture your train of thought, enabling you to carry on with the rest of your talk.
Smoothly executed, this little trick will appear to the audience as a planned part of your presentation – and they also get the benefit of a review of your most important points.
Pause and Take a Breath
Many speakers use the pause as an effective communication tool. A second or two of silence tends to emphasize what you’ve just said, allows the audience to consider and absorb it, and creates audience anticipation about what you’ll say next. This same technique can give you a chance to gather your thoughts – so everyone benefits, and your listeners will probably never suspect you were having a memory lapse.
Humor and Storytelling
As part of your general preparations as a presenter, arm yourself with a few stories, anecdotes and jokes that have broad, general appeal. If you lose your place in your presentation, you can smoothly bring up one of these as an interesting aside, while you recall what you really meant to say next. Appropriate humor is almost always appreciated, and everyone loves a good story. They’re great for building your connection with the audience, and for giving your brain a chance to get back on the rails.
Have you ever lost your train of thought while presenting? We’d love to know how you recovered – please feel free to share in the comments below.