How to Survive a Presentation When You Forget Your Speech

I had practiced my speech for two weeks straight, reciting it day in and day out, committing it to memory. A young, confident senior at the University of Southern California at the time, I knew my education had prepared me for this moment… or so I thought.

But then, as I stood on stage in a room full of 60 people, I struggled to remember the first line. It was like trying to swim in a pool of quicksand — the more I tried to remember the words the deeper I sunk. Eventually, I walked off stage without delivering my speech because I just couldn’t find the words. It was one of my most humiliating experiences as a presenter/speaker.

In that moment, I had forgotten one of the cardinal rules of communication and presentation: when you forget your speech, keep going!

The reality is that often no one realizes your mistake but you.

Where we get into trouble is when we bring attention to our mistake by saying things like, “Sorry, I forgot my place,” or stopping our presentation all together. Those actions not only make us self-conscious but they also give the audience anxiety.

This is why it’s dangerous to commit a speech to memory. We get so married to the words that we forget the most important part of our presentation is the overall message and the connection we’ve made with our audience. Like a missing piece of a train track, we can’t proceed unless the railroad is complete. However, if we treat our presentations like a guiding star then it won’t matter if we take a few side roads along the way, as long as we’re going in the right direction.

Here are some ways to survive (and prevent) goof-ups when giving a speech:

  1. Don’t commit your presentation to memory Some people advocate this, but I think it’s dangerous. For one, speakers who memorize feel very mechanic when they present because the written word is different from the spoken word. Second, following a written speech leaves no room for spontaneous connection and communication with your audience that can only happen when you’re present in the moment.
  2. Have a backup plan – If for some (rare) reason you must read your speech verbatim, remember to have the words close by. (I prefer a hardcopy as opposed to electronic. With hard copy you don’t run the risk of a computer or iPad failing on you.)
  3. Pause, ponder, and then proceed – Train yourself to pause whenever you lose your thought. Our natural reaction is to flounder and fill space with meaningless words. Remember that you haven’t failed if you forgot your place and often no knows it but you.
  4. Think about the end goal – If you get stuck, don’t harp on the minutia. Think about the totality of your presentation rather than the words you forgot. Where do you want your audience to be at the end of your talk? What do you want them to feel? Use this as your guide to getting back on track.