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You Rehearsed, But...

At our training sessions, I often ask other members to ask me questions and give me ideas for articles.  Someone asked, "I know we do Table Topics to practice impromptu speaking, but what happens if you are in a prepared presentation and you totally lose your train of thought? You go blank."

Let's split the answer into two parts: 1. Prevention and 2. Recovery


To reduce the possibility of getting stuck or lost, here are a few strategies. Use what works for you:

  • know your material beyond what is required. That is, know more about the subject than you will ever cover in the presentation. Know it so well that you can see it and taste it intuitively. Then speak from your understanding, not from rote memorization
  • instead of memorizing the words, memorize the ideas of the presentation like a movie so that you feel and can visualize its flow
  • practice in a place where the results do not matter until you know it cold (not memorized, internalized). Practice at Toastmasters, with peer/team co-workers, at a community group, in your mastermind group
  • have some bulleted notes at hand, especially if you are delivering bad news
  • build the structure of your presentation into a sequence of slides (no, not text slides!), or props
  • imagine the presentation as a movie... and just narrate it
  • let go of the expectation of reciting every word exactly as scripted. Let it go. LET... IT... GO...!
  • if you must guarantee that you get every word correct, use notes (gasp!)
  • an acronym or initialism can help:
    SUCCESS - Simple Unexpected Concrete Credible Emotional Stories
    PDCA - Plan Do Check Act
  • record your speech from the script when you are satisfied with it. Play it and listen or speak along
  • use a mind map
  • use the Memory Palace technique.

Here is a video by journalist Joshua Foer sharing his experience with the Memory Palace at TED:

In the following video, watch John Lithgow introduce Elizabeth Alexander who presented the 2011 National (United States) Book Award in Poetry to Nikkey Finney. Each of them used notes, each with varying degrees of fluency and all of them sounded like they were reading. Notice that as she got warmed up, Nikkey became more authentic; less like she was reading. At the very end, John Lithgow spoke off-script and the audience LOVED it.


If you still get stuck, getting lost or stuck is not a failure, but this depends on the stuffiness of the audience.  I have yet to meet a totally unforgiving audience, but if you are delivering what for them is bad news they might be less forgiving.

  • If your presentation already has some humour in it and the audience is entertained, your getting stuck will just add to that. "Where was I? What was the last thing I just said? Has anyone seen my brain laying around? [audience answers] Yes, thank you Jane. I'm glad one of us is paying attention!"
  • pause and refer to your notes without drawing attention to it
  • get your cat

Check out the brilliant Rowan Atkinson, in a skit, giving a Father of the Bride wedding speech:

I hope these ideas help you. Go easy, have fun, and forgive yourself before you need to.  Please comment with follow-on questions or comments on how we could add to this article.

Craig Senior

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Reader Comments (1)

The anti-bully and the Informative speech (on the band) remind me of my Grade 7 speech except those 2 speakers were a bit more relaxed. I held my speech up like a shield to protect myself from the audience.

I don't do that anymore. I've learned a lot from Toastmasters but the most important thing I learned was that I cannot memorize -- I have to understand the content.

Dec 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris
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