At the 2012 Toastmasters International Convention, I had the great fortune to attend Jock Elliot’s educational session. Jock, the 2011 World Champion of Public Speaking, described his 35 year competitive speaking journey masterfully weaving storytelling and presentation tips.
Perhaps the most interesting insight I gleaned came while watching Jock when he lost his train of thought. There is actually something heartening about the fact that even world champions suffer the occasional memory lapse on stage. When he realized what was happening, Jock paused and said “This next part is so important that I need to read it to you.” He then calmly strolled back the the lectern to glance at his notes making an intentionally audible “hmmm…. yes…” as he did so. He then took back center stage and continued enthralling his audience.
Although I was very impressed by Jock’s recovery technique, I was on the fence about adopting it for myself. The issue troubling me was whether or not it had crossed the authenticity line. Everyone forgets, but you should strive to recover authentically. Surely, I was not the only one to notice it was a well-rehearsed technique.
We have all seen what not to do when speakers lose their train of thought – “I… ummm… forgot what I was about to say… ummm…” In addition to Jock’s technique, are there other ways to recover?
As fate would have it, my fellow District 53 Toastmasters and I quite randomly shared a cab to Downtown Disney with Matt Abrahams. Without knowing who Matt was, we invited him to dinner with us. It turns out that Matt was leading an educational session the next day on how to overcome your fear of public speaking. In fact, he wrote the book on the subject – “Speaking Up Without Freaking Out.”
Based on my observation of Jock, my conversation with Matt, and excerpts from Matt’s book, here is how to recover gracefully:
Method 1: Make It Look Planned
This is what Jock Elliot did by pausing, saying “This next part is so important that I need to read it to you”, consulting his notes, then starting up again. One key lesson here is that you should always have your notes easily accessible. I keep mine in my pocket as a safely blanket; I rarely need them, but having them there sure make me feel good.
Method 2: Paraphrase Your Previous Content
From Matt’s book: “You will have to excuse me, but I am so passionate about my topic that I sometimes get ahead of myself. Allow me to review my previous point.” Nine times out of ten, retracing your steps will help you find the path forward.
Method 3: Ask Your Audience A Thought Provoking Question
Matt’s recommendation is “What seems to be the most important point so far?” I feel that this technique would work better in presentation that is highly interactive to begin with. However you can use this as a rhetorical question to either buy time with a long pause or to precede a review of your previous content (i.e. a lead-in to Method #2).
Method 4: Review Your Overall Speaking Purpose
Every speech should have a central theme – preferably encapsulated in a three to twelve word catchphrase. Repeating your theme is always welcome by your audience so a memory lapse is a reasonable time to throw it back out there.
Try It Out!
Unfortunately, you are going to experience a memory lapse at some time. In fact, the older you get, the more frequently it is going to happen. However, fear of memory lapses should not prevent you from sharing your ideas with the world. If Jock Elliot can lose his train of though, then so can I. Pick one, just one, of these methods and have it in your back pocket the next time you need it.