Every time I hear this conversation, I want to stick a fork in my eye:
Friend of presenter: How did your presentation go?!
Presenter: It went well! Thanks so much for asking. I was nervous I'd blank or forget parts so really pleased I didn't.
If not forgetting your words is your definition of success, you're doing it wrong.
In fact, I'd rather you DID forget your words mid-presentation (and know how to handle it). Far better than your mindset turning every public speaking opportunity into some all-or-nothing Squid game-style memory test.
It takes way too much time to learn a script well enough to be able to recite it effortlessly and connect with your audience. Time, which if you're reading this, you likely haven't got
Your audience hasn't got a clue what you're planning to say anyway. So it's not like they can hold you to account.
Thinking about your presentations in this way makes the whole experience exhausting and miserable. When you've gone through it once, you'll never want to do it again.
So, on the assumption you haven't got 3 months to practice your script to the point of effortlessness, what are your options? I think there are two. But before I share what those are,
What to do if you forget your words mid-presentation
Option 1: Own the fact that you're reading from a script
I mean, it doesn't get much more blatant than that...!
Obama is considered one of the best public speakers of our time, yet, as president, he was famous for not delivering his addresses off the cuff. He didn't try and hide it, he owned it!
If you've got an important message that you need to deliver perfectly, a lectern is a great option. As is a teleprompter if you find yourself delivering to a camera.
I filmed a video course last year, 6 hours of training content for my clients to access whenever they want. Without a teleprompter, I'd still be filming it! It has given me days of my life back and they don't cost the earth. I got mine for £150 (if you'd like the link, just ask!).
That said, if you want to connect with the people/camera you're presenting to, you're going to have to learn how to read without making it look like you're reading (stay tuned for the next edition of this newsletter!).
Option 2: Become a doing-brain presenter
There are two ways you can deliver a presentation: with your thinking brain or with your doing brain.
Let me explain.
The thinking brain has a very calculated and controlled approach to presenting. Its primary goal is to do everything in its power to ensure you deliver the message you’ve prepared as accurately as possible.
The result is a style of presentation that comes across as forced and unnatural. When you’re using the thinking brain, it feels like you’re presenting in a pressure cooker because it’s in overdrive trying to get everything right.
In the best case, the presenter looks like they’ve spent too much time at Toastmasters. They’ve gone into ‘presentation mode’ and have a delivery that is so polished, it’s inauthentic. In the worst case, the thinking brain becomes so consumed with remembering everything perfectly that brain fog manifests and eventually the mind goes blank mid-presentation.
The doing brain has a more uninhibited and fluid approach. Its goal is to keep your presentation’s purpose and message front of mind, but let the rest take care of itself. Prompts are more than enough to keep you on track, so it is happy for each section to be delivered in the way that feels right in the moment itself.
The result is a style of presenting that is both conversational and relatable. When the doing brain is presenting, it feels effortless. The mind is quiet, and finding the right words is easy because there is no cognitive overload to disrupt your path.
When you present with the doing brain for the first time, you will feel unstoppable. And so you should. It is the realisation of a superpower and when you’re able to harness it, you will be able to handle any presentation scenario that is thrown at you.
Now, to many of you reading this, the idea of presenting with the doing brain probably doesn’t just sound like bliss, it sounds like the stuff of legend. Something to aspire to but not something you’re likely to ever reach. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, every single one of you is a proficient ‘doing brain’ communicator. You communicate with your doing brain every single day. In low-stakes environments, like when you’re catching up with a friend, you don’t think about what you’re going to say or how you’re going to say it, you just say it. So it’s possible.
The problem is, the higher the perceived stakes of the presentation, the more in control we like to feel which is why the thinking brain ends up taking the reins.
So how can we persuade our thinking brain to let the doing brain take control?
Well, it starts with knowing you've got a backup plan if your mind goes blank mid-presentation.
Step 1: Accept the fact that forgetting your words is a matter of when, not if.
It happens to even the most seasoned presenters. The difference is, a seasoned presenter will make the experience so forgettable for the audience, it's as though it never happened in the first place. And herein lies the secret to handling almost anything unexpected that happens on stage.
Step 2: Don't make it awkward.
Don't go silent and make the audience nervously wait for you to pick up where you left off. It is the quickest way to make the room go cold.
Don't apologise. Subconsciously it will feel like the power dynamic has shifted and it will set a precedent for the rest of the time you're on stage.
Don't ramble. We can all spot a bullshitter.
Step 3: At the end of what you can remember, say this...
‘and I have completely forgotten where I was going with that!'
Followed by either:
Let me check my notes… Ah! That’s right…’
Let's move on, I'll weave it in when it comes back.
Does anyone know where I was going with that?... Brilliant - Drinks on me after this!
Then crack on!
Watching someone forget their words can be as uncomfortable for the audience as it is for the presenter. If it’s not a big deal for you, it doesn’t become one for them.
You always have this card in your back pocket. And it will provide reassurance to your thinking brain that your doing brain has got it!
But most importantly of all, it means that the success of your presentation can be less about whether or not you forgot your words and more about:
How you made your audience feel
What you made your audience think, and
Whether or not your message will be remembered.
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