How to Recover When You Lose Your Train of Thought

By The Speaking Sherpa

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 safety blanket; I rarely need them, but having them there sure makes 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 thought, then so can I. Pick one, just one, of these methods and have it in your back pocket the next time you need it.

Executive Presence: Do You Have It?

Executive presence may be hard to define, but most people know it when they see it. Do you have it? If you think it may be lacking, or if you’d like to increase your credibility and confidence, consider the following tips when presenting:

Be Aware That Gestures and Mannerisms Either Support or Sabotage What You Say

Gestures and mannerisms can either convince your audience of your sincerity or antagonize them. Imagine yourself in an airport, with conversations going on all around you, and you yourself engaged in a farewell to a friend. All of a sudden, the man and woman sitting next to you begin to wave their arms dramatically, their fingers urgently punching the air. Immediately, your attention is diverted from your own conversation to this couple.

Why do their words not distract you, but their gestures do? That’s the power of gestures and mannerisms; often, movement speaks louder than words.

You may be completely serious, passionate, and confident about what you have to say, but your audience may perceive you as insincere because of poor eye contact, slouched posture, a bored expression, or weak gestures.

Become Conscious of What Your Body Language Says When You’re in Front of a Group

Your upper-body posture is controlled primarily by what you do with your arms. Your posture and your gestures are difficult to separate. They make a total statement.

I work with many people who are completely unaware of their body language until they see themselves on video for the first time. For example, some people stand with their head intensely protruding forward as if they are about to scold the audience. Others stand in a slouched position as though they are exhausted from marching through the desert for days without rest.

Others hug, pat, and squeeze themselves when they speak. Still others either stand rigid as if locked in a straightjacket or sway back and forth as if they are a shy teenager about to ask their first date to the prom.

Look at yourself in the mirror and see how it feels to stand with your arms relaxed loosely at your side or with your elbows slightly bent. It may feel awkward, but it does not look awkward. Simply stand there, looking in the mirror, and get used to the various postures that both look and feel appropriate so that you do not feel awkward with that same natural posture, gesture, or stance in front of a group.

Add Volume to Increase Authority

In our society, little girls are taught that loud voices are not feminine, whereas little boys learn no such inhibitions. As a result, women often have problems with speaking loudly enough. In today’s business arena, wimpy voices get little attention. Consider the extreme. When someone shouts, everyone turns to look—regardless of what’s being said. Volume gets attention.

Remember that your voice always sounds louder to you than to anyone else. Take another person’s word for it when he or she says you need to speak up. Also remember that your voice is an instrument; it needs to be warmed up, or it will creak and crack at the beginning of your presentation. If you warm up with a high volume, as though projecting to those in the back row, your volume also will improve your vocal quality.

Volume adds energy to your voice; it has the power to command or lose listeners’ attention.

Lower the Pitch to Increase Credibility

Pitch, the measurement of the “highness” or “lowness” of your voice, is determined largely by the amount of tension in the vocal cords. When you are under stress, you may sound high-pitched; when you are relaxed and confident, you will have a naturally lower pitch.

Authoritative vocal tones are low and calm, not high and tense. Inflection is a pitch change—from “Stop!” screeched at an assailant to the haughty “Please stop” directed at a stranger using your department’s copy machine. You can lower your pitch to some degree by practicing scales (as singers do, dropping the voice with each word) and by breathing more deeply to relax your vocal cords.

Remember that a lower pitch conveys power, authority, and confidence, whereas a high pitch conveys insecurity and nervousness.

To sum up: Your personal presence may make the difference in driving home your point—past the ears to the head and heart of those you want to influence.

About the Author:

Excerpted from Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader by Dianna Booher and used courtesy of Booher Consultants, Inc. Dianna Booher works with organizations to increase productivity and effectiveness through better communication: oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational. For more information visit  www.booher.com

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