What Should A Speaker Do When Disaster Strikes?

Disaster can strike a speaker at any time
Disaster can strike a speaker at any time
Image Credit: Mayberry Health and Home

So just exactly what does disaster look like to a speaker? I think that we can all agree that disaster can take on many forms when it comes to delivering a speech in public. However, I think that if you are on a stage and you lose your train of thought and can’t remember what you wanted to say next, then that can count as a speaking disaster. This is something that can happen to any of us at any time. We need to be ready to deal with it the next time that it happens.

Disaster Can Happen At Any Time

Anyone can go blank, lose a train of thought, or become distracted or confused if a key point is lost as we watch the importance of public speaking slip away from us. No matter the situation, such a memory lapse can rattle the speaker, break the audience’s concentration and reduce the overall effectiveness of the speech. It can also be an opportunity. It shows that you are human and gives you a chance to display grace under pressure. It offers you a chance to show off your ability to improvise until you find your way back on track. There are other benefits. Recovering from a memory lapse gracefully usually helps a speaker gain audience support. People love to root for an underdog. What’s more, discovering that you have the ability to recover will build your confidence to handle unpredictable situations you might face in the future.

Of course, the most popular way to avoid memory lapses is to practice, practice and practice some more. The plan is to rehearse the speech so many times that you could recite the words in your sleep. Most speakers work through these repetitions an average of 20 to 50 times. Sometimes a memory lapse occurs anyway. If it happens to you, you can try the following strategies to survive and thrive through the challenge.

Ways To Fool An Audience While You Are Facing A Speaking Disaster

Picture your speech in your memory. Envision your notes for you presentation in your head. Picture the outline with bullets for that section of your speech. Perhaps can you see it on a 3×5 index card? Find the spot where you left off and see — in your mind’s eye — what’s next. Take time to run through a mental list of some key words that might trigger recognition. While visualizing your way back, you can fool the audience into believing everything is going as planned.

Use your body to do something physical. It gives you time to think. For example, you can walk in a circle then pick up where you left off. The audience will think the movement is part of your performance. Prepare before the speech a gesture so it appears rehearsed. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Take a humorous approach: Look up and raise your hands skyward as if you’re appealing to the gods. Or turn to the side, and stare off into the distance as if you are deep in thought. Whatever you do, ham it up. Then laugh with the audience as you resume speaking.

Tell a joke. If you make the joke relevant, the audience will perceive it as a part of the performance. So, in advance, come up with an appropriate comment and practice the delivery so the transition is seamless. A good way to go about doing this is to have a universal hip-pocket anecdote — a current event, personal story, news item relevant to the speech — that you can slip in to your speech.

Ask the audience a rhetorical question. It could be as simple as, “What do you think?” Or choose a good rhetorical question for your subject. No response is required to give the speaker time to recollect. Pause, calm yourself and ask for a response from the audience, like, ‘How would you feel under these circumstances? Listen to the answer, paraphrase the response, thank the commentator, and by this time, your speech is back on track.

Simply pause and look at the audience. Make eye contact with different people and take a minute to recover yourself. Something happens during pauses. The audience catches their breath. Emotions are stirred. Senses are heightened. Never apologize for a lapse. Dead silence is better than an apology. It can even add drama to a point while you are remembering words.

Look casually at inked notes on your arm or hand. Remember high school, where some students wrote information on an arm for a test? Then, it was called cheating, but now it is called a speech aid. Cast your head down as if in thought, and flip your hand or arm to see the notes. Scan the notes. Of course, you must make sure the audience doesn’t ever see them. When you know what is next, look up as though you’ve just received an epiphany. This might seem like acting, but after all, you are a performer.

As a last resort, look at your notes. Though it won’t add points to your performance, reading from notes is not ruination – this is better than forgetting your speech. Regardless of whether you have to resort to this last-ditch measure or not, it is a good idea to make up a card of notes, if for no other reason that its presence is reassuring. You could keep some sort of prop at the lectern and pretend that you are moving there to pick it up. While grabbing it, take a look at your notes. When creating your notes be sure to use big print and color coding!

What All Of This Means For You

None of us run the world yet and because of that, things can always happen during one of our speeches. A speech disaster can take on many different forms but the one that we all seem to dread the most is the one where we somehow forget what we wanted to say next and can’t share the benefits of public speaking with our audience. Our mind goes blank and we find ourselves just standing there. We can’t stop this from happening, but we can prepare ourselves to deal with it when it does happen.

The first thing that you can do is to attempt to restart your speech by trying to picture your speech in your memory and finding your place. You can also buy yourself some time by doing something physical and walking around. You can use your free time to tell your audience a joke. Alternatively you can ask your audience a rhetorical question in order to buy yourself some more time. You can look at your audience until your memory comes back to you or you can look at the notes that you’ve written on your arm or on papers that lie before you.

The good news is that we all forget what we want to say next at some point in time. It’s not the end of the world even though it might seem that way when it is happening to you. If we can keep the suggestions that we’ve covered here in mind the next time that our train goes off the track, we’ll have a good chance to find a way to get it back on track before our audience even knows that anything has happened.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that you should ever tell your audience that you have forgotten what you were going to say?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site www.Toastmasters.org. Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Let’s all agree on one thing: you’ve worked hard to prepare for the next speech that you will be giving. When you take the stage, you are assuming that your audience will be interested in what you have to say and they will pay attention to you while you are speaking. However, in this day and age, there is a very good chance that some of the members of your audience may not be giving you all of their attention. Instead they may be using their mobile phones to text or tweet while you speak. What’s a speaker to do?