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Matt Abrahams: Presentations and the Art of the Graceful Recovery

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Matt Abrahams: Presentations and the Art of the Graceful Recovery

A Stanford lecturer and expert on public speaking explains what to do when memory fails.
Man sitting listening to presentation
Even perfect preparation can’t guarantee that you won’t forget something. (Reuters photo by Stephen Lam)

In my previous post on making memorable presentations, I discussed techniques and practices you can employ to help you remember what you intended to say. However, even perfect preparation can't guarantee that you won't forget something.

Drawing a blank when you're standing before an audience can have dramatic and traumatic implications. Consider politicians and how memory gaffes can damage their credibility. For example, Texas Governor Rick Perry suffered a long memory lapse during an early November 2011 nationally televised debate among U.S. Republican presidential candidates. Perry's painfully awkward stumble provided endless fodder for political observers, media pundits — and stand-up comedians. So what can you do if you forget parts of your presentation?

First, try not to be too hard on yourself. Often, speakers blurt out comments that reduce their credibility: "Sheesh, how could I forget?" "I'm so nervous" or "I can't believe how stupid I am!" If you must overtly acknowledge your forgetfulness, simply apologize and collect your thoughts.

One of my students once addressed her forgetfulness in a clever way that portrayed a potentially negative occurrence as a byproduct of a positive trait: "You'll 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." Most audiences are very forgiving, and some may actually be thankful for the pause because it allows them time to process what you've presented.

To help get yourself back on track, focus on what you've just said. Too often, people who blank out try to figure out what they need to say next. But you are more likely to continue smoothly if you reorient yourself by looking to what you said previously.

The following techniques can help you get past a memory block:

1. Paraphrase your previous content.

Pausing to say, "So just to step back for a moment, I've already covered how X and Y are relevant…" gives you a moment to remember point Z, and even frame it as a point you've been building toward.

2. Ask your audience a question — maybe even a rhetorical one:

"What seems to be the most important point so far?" Asking a rhetorical question not only provides you with a chance to collect your thoughts, but it also boosts your confidence because you know the answer, and launching into that answer will likely get you back in the flow.

3. Review your overall speaking purpose:

"So we can see that [insert your core message] is really important." This option works well when you are struggling to remember your place at big transition points because it allows you to return to the overall importance of your message.

Mistakes happen. It's a simple fact of life. But when you're in front of a roomful of people and you're trying to think of your next point, but all you can picture is … nothing, the key to a graceful recovery is to step back for a moment and regain your bearings.

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