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.

Presentation – Preparation, Or Panic?

“I never prepare for presentations, I just wing it.” I often hear this said about presentations and I’m not entirely sure I believe this statement. At least, not about successful presentations.

As for those who are clearly flailing, then perhaps all preparation has been forgotten in favour of nerves. But only the supremely confident will make the statement above, and even then there must have been some elements of preparation, if only being sure that prior experience combined with good industry and audience knowledge are enough.

How do you prepare?

Do you panic?

Do you rehash your last presentation? What if it didn’t work the last time? Is it simply a case of fingers crossed and hope for the best?

Do you write some PowerPoint slides around your subject and then plan out what you’ll say afterwards?

These methods are a bit like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. You might hit the spot, but you might not. Your audience will certainly let you know that you haven’t if you fail to prepare properly. It’s also unfair to lead them on a mystery tour if you’re rambling through PowerPoint slides with no clear path.

The key to preparation is to know beforehand what you want to achieve from your presentation.

What do you want your final outcome to be? More signups to courses? Knowledge transfer? Whatever this goal is, write it in big letters, stick it on a wall where you can easily see it and ensure every aspect of your presentation can be justified by that goal. Just as all projects need a business case, so do your presentations.

You also need to be able to gauge your success criteria for your presentation and this also requires preparation. Do you want quantifiable or qualified results? How will you measure your success? Can you relate it all to your desired results easily?

If you prepare carefully for a presentation and think carefully about the results you want to achieve with the audience you have then your presentation should be successful and fun. If you simply wing it; then prepare for your credibility to fly out of the window…

3 Presentation Peeves: Add Them to Your Resolution List

Pet peeves. Those mundane (yet infuriating) habits that get under your skin and drive you crazy! We all have them. Perhaps your pet peeve is drivers who don’t use turn signals. No? How about someone cracking their knuckles… or noisy eaters? Admit it, you’ve got at least one.

As 2012 comes to a close, I’d like to share three of my pet peeves — presentation peeves, of course! Each is remarkably easy to fix and each an ideal resolution for sharpening your skills in the coming year – transforming a presentation peeve into presentation presence.

#1. Avoid the weak “thank you” opener.

Picture a speaker being introduced. She walks on stage, shakes hands with the emcee, turns and faces the audience, and the first words she utters are, “Thank you, John, for that gracious introduction.”

There’s no need to express thanks to the audience before you begin. They want – and deserve – a much stronger opening, one that grabs their attention and sets the expectation that you are a speaker worth listening to.

Offer sincere thanks to the emcee when you shake hands, and you’re ready to start off on a powerful note.

#2. Button up.

Men, want to know the secret to looking trim, confident and well dressed? Simple: button your jacket! Whether you’re wearing a suit and tie or a sport coat with a collared shirt, button up before you hit the stage. Though no one may criticize your open jacket, buttoning up enhances your credibility and presence. Just look at Jay Leno, David Letterman or Tom Bergeron – they are all buttoned up.

Because women’s fashions vary so widely, buttoning up is optional for female speakers. It really depends on the cut of your jacket and the image it will project. Some fashion-forward blazers or suit jackets were not designed to be worn buttoned up, but if you’re wearing a traditionally cut pantsuit or skirted suit, you will look more polished if you do.

Hint for both genders: Make sure your jacket fits properly when buttoned. If you can’t button it, don’t buy it or eliminate it from your on-stage wardrobe. The Susan Bixler and Nancy Nix-Rice, book The New Professional Image is a good resource for questions about appearance in the workplace. Although published in 1997, it is still relevant today.

#3. Wait till you see the white of their eyes.

Here’s a real pet peeve of mine. Have you ever noticed a presenter approach the front of the room and begin speaking before they even turn to face the audience? This seems to have become the norm rather than the exception.

Want to set yourself apart from the crowd? Whether a conference room, board room or main stage, turn and face your audience, greet them with a smile, and take a moment to breathe before saying a word. In Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, author James Humes refers to this as a power pause. Your power pause will establish your presence and give you the confidence of a leader.

There you have them… three ridiculously easy ways to increase your confidence and enhance your presentation presence. High-stakes speaking success in 2013 and beyond doesn’t get any easier than that.