I was at a Toastmasters contest a week or so ago, and watched some great speakers go up and give their best. This includes the final speaker, who, after speaking for about two minutes, stopped. He had been sailing along through his story, and abruptly broke out of his speaking mode, standing up straight and proclaiming "Wow - I've practiced this speech so many times, and now it's just gone. I'm going to have to concede."
He was met with sympathy and support - as he should have been in that setting. Toastmasters is the perfect place to 'bomb' without losing much in the way of reputation, clientele, or self-esteem, even in a contest setting. In the real world, I wonder what he would have done differently. If he had been at a storytelling convention? In front of an audience of high school students? A Fortune 500 company? How would YOU have handled it?
No matter how seasoned a speaker you are, there is an ever-present risk of losing your place in a presentation, forgetting the well-crafted words you spent hours writing, or simply having a complete brain-freeze. It's happened to me, it's probably happened to you. If it hasn't yet, just wait - it eventually will, and there's never a great time for it to happen.
5 Ways to Ensure The Show Will Go On...
1. Trust Yourself - when you are in that moment, where the next word is simply gone, say something else. It's your speech, filled with your stories, and your ideas. Nobody really knows what you were going to say anyway, and even if they've heard it before, people re-write all the time. Trust your ability to tell the story with words available to you at the time, even if the words on the page have run far, far away.
2. Push Through Practice - most people stop and start when they practice. We want to 'practice perfect', so we stop the minute we miss a word, refer to our notes, and start again. Unfortunately, this also trains us to stop when we're on stage. That's when the mental warfare starts. We're stuck mid-sentence, and aren't sure what to do, because it's NOT practice, and we don't want run to our notes, but we don't know what else to do, because we've only practiced what's on the page.
Practice going through the speech without stopping - ad-lib your way through any missteps. You never know, you might even find a better way to say something that carries with it the extra benefit of being more natural, because you came up with it on the fly. Pushing yourself through your practices will give you more confidence on stage, because you'll have already put yourself successfully through the mental warfare games.
3. Pause and Walk - this works well if you've just ended a sentence, or are between points. The Pause and Walk gives the audience time to think about what you've said, and builds anticipation for your upcoming words. It also gives you time to walk back to your notes - preferably an outline - and get yourself back on track. If you're mid-sentence or mid-story, the Pause and Walk is NOT your best option.
4. Ask a Question - Ask a rhetorical question, based on the point you've just made, or the behavior you've just been talking about. It buys you some time to mentally find your place, or Pause and Walk! Your audience will just accept the question as part of your presentation, and it will give them something to consider while you reset yourself. Where in your speech can you toss in an 'Emergency Question' if you have to?
5. Acknowledge and Reboot - sometimes there's simply no amount of bluffing that can save you. You're in the middle of a dramatic story and *POOF* it all goes away, just like what happened to my Toastmasters peer. In the end, he did the right thing by acknowledging his problem - but he could have taken it one step further - and when we're in front of a 'real-world' audience, we MUST take it that one step further. Acknowledge the error, make a self-deprecating remark (preferably one you've formed while Pushing Through Practice), and get to your notes. Then just pick up where you left off. If what you have to say has enough impact, they'll look past your gaffe. If it doesn't, you got an entirely different set of problems.
At the end of the day, my fellow Toastmaster gets a pass. He was in a contest and knew he would have little or no chance of winning regardless of these five techniques. At the same time, had he pushed through and finished, regardless of the trophy he was after, both he and the audience would have come out winners in the long run. Regardless of who your next audience is, decide ahead of time that no matter what, The Show Must Go On.
Have some additional ideas and techniques? Please, share them with the rest of us by commenting below!