Many speakers worry about forgetting what they want to say during a presentation. They don’t want to freeze in front of their audience. It can be a very surreal experience, to completely lose your train of thought in the middle of a talk. However, many people don’t realize that there are a few situations that can make it easier for someone to blank out.
1. Replaying a former rehearsal
Some presenters are surprised when they practice a talk perfectly, and then when they do it live, they completely forget what they want to say. This can happen when a speaker is thinking about a former rehearsal as they start their current presentation. If you are trying to replay something you did in the past, your attention won’t be on the current moment. Instead, your brain goes back in time and this disconnect can often trigger a person to forget what they are actively saying. This happens to athletes as well. If they are thinking about a previous time when they shot a basket correctly, or a moment when they kicked a ball really well, they lose focus on what is in front of them and it affects their performance. Therefore, instead of trying to replay a former talk, just trust your rehearsals prepared you for the task at hand. Then focus on the present moment as you share your work with the audience in front of you.
2. Made sense on paper
Another thing that throws presenters off is when they map out their transitions on paper, but they don’t work as well when they are spoken out loud. So if you’ve ever had a moment where you can’t remember the next part of your talk, it’s often because your last thought didn’t make you think of the next one. This happens to actors all the time. If they forget a line, it’s often because they don’t know why they need to share their next line. That’s why I recommend saying your transitions out loud without being able to look at the text. If you know how to begin and end each slide, you’re far more likely to have a consistent flow of ideas and remember your content.
3. Focusing on the words not the story
When presenters try to memorize a presentation, they are focused on remembering text. However, that’s not how we tell stories. When we tell stories, the exact words aren’t important, it’s more about replaying images and events in our head. Instead of trying to memorize words, try to get comfortable with a sequence of events. Going into “storytelling mode” helps people remember their content as they connect with their audience.
So if you’ve frozen during a presentation before, forget any former rehearsals, map out your transitions, and then go into storytelling mode. It will help you focus on the current moment so you can successfully share your work with others.
Author: Bri McWhorter
No matter how prepared you are, surprises happen. That’s why it’s difficult when people feel ready for a presentation, but then something happens when they get up in front of an audience and their nerves take over. Thankfully, there are things people can do during their presentation prep work that can help them practice dealing with these unexpected variables.
1. Practice in different environments
People usually practice presentations in a familiar environment that they have full control over. However, when you go to a conference or a new location, the entire presentation set-up changes. You have a different visual in front of you, people might be moving or shuffling their stuff around, and you are no longer inches from your laptop in a quiet room. That’s why I recommend practicing parts of your presentation in different environments. See if you can practice in a new conference room, at a different desk with people around, even practice the transitions in your presentation as you walk around the block. If you can get comfortable with new variables around you as you share your talk, you’ll be far more prepared for your presentation.
2. Practice without looking at your slides or a script
Every presentation setup is different. I’ve given hybrid presentations where my laptop is in the back of the room while I’m in front of a conference table. I had no access to notes and I couldn’t see what slide was coming up next. Thankfully I was very familiar with my topic and I didn’t need to access any notes. However, you don’t want to be thrown off if something like this happens to you. That’s why I always make sure I practice the outline of my presentation without looking at my slides. If you know what idea comes next without a visual reminder, you’ll feel prepared with and without your slides.
3. Practice having something go wrong
While you can’t prepare for every situation that occurs, you can control how you react. If you’re worried about how you’ll handle curve balls, I recommend practicing having something go wrong. Click ahead a few slides and pretend you had a tech glitch, close your laptop in the middle of your presentation and pretend the screen projector turned off, or practice with a friend and have them interrupt you. The more you train yourself to stay calm, breathe, and continue the narrative, the more prepared you’ll be for future events.
While you can’t prepare for every variable, you can practice handling them. Rehearse in different environments, go through your outline without looking at your script, or have something go awry on purpose. That way you’ll feel much more prepared for your next presentation.
Author: Bri McWhorter
During the PhD journey, one important milestone is the advancement to candidacy oral exam. This is where a student talks about the work they’ve done and the work they intend to complete in order to proceed to the PhD dissertation phase. The student prepares a presentation and their committee can interrupt and ask questions at any point. Then the committee votes as to whether the student has advanced to candidacy. Because of the talk’s unique nature and importance, many students get overwhelmed preparing for it.
That’s why I’ve put together three tips to help you reframe how you think about an advancement:
1. Right Mindset
If you’ve had test anxiety in the past, anything called an "exam" will ignite stress. However, this is not an "exam" where you are checking boxes on a piece of paper — this is a conversation. Think of your committee as a panel of consultants who are there to look at the various components of your work and identify any blind spots that you might want to account for now, rather than deal with later. Think of this as a formal meeting where you get to discuss your project with some of the most brilliant people in your field and get their feedback.
2. Appreciate Questions
Instead of worrying about questions from your committee, try to appreciate them. Your committee is asking questions about your work for a reason. They want to make sure your plan is solid before moving on to the next stage. It would be far worse if people knew there could be an issue with your dissertation, but didn’t tell you until it was too late. This is an opportunity to examine your plan from every angle before moving forward.
3. People Are Trying to Help
Sometimes a committee member shares feedback in an unfiltered way and their vocal delivery can come off as harsh or judgmental. Whenever I work with people who are a bit more "direct" in their delivery, I like to assume they are coming from a protective mindset where they are focusing on the information, not on how they share it. For example, if a kid runs into the middle of the street, we might react with "No! Come back!" and forget to deliver that information in a gentle way. People on your committee are invested in your success. So if they ask questions that come off harshly, remember they are there to help you and have your back.
If you are preparing for an advancement (or another oral exam), try to adjust your mindset, appreciate questions, and remember that your committee is there to help. Before you enter the room, shake off any nervous energy, breathe deep, and walk into that room with your head held high. Enjoy this time where brilliant people are taking time out of their day to help you succeed.
Author: Bri McWhorter
During a presentation, people share a substantial amount of information. Even though the audience is listening, sometimes a message might get missed. You don’t want people feeling that they need to make an effort in order to keep up. That’s why it’s important to be intentional about pausing during certain moments in a presentation.
1. In the introduction
In the introduction, you need to give people a moment to get used to your voice, presence, and presentation style. If you share your ideas too quickly at the start, the audience has to work to keep up with you. Then, if they feel like they need to put in effort at the start (before the information gets complicated) people will just tune out. That’s why you want to pause between your ideas at the beginning, so that your audience has a moment to connect with you and your material.
2. Before you share important information
People need a moment to process the last idea they heard. Therefore, if you are sharing important information, be sure to pause right before you share it. Otherwise, even if your message is clear, your audience might not hear it because they are still digesting the last thought.
3. When you share your contribution to a project
Background information can easily get confused with new information. That’s especially true if someone is not familiar with the topic you are presenting. However, you want your effort to be acknowledged and stand out. Therefore, I recommend pausing before you share your contribution to a project to make sure it’s recognized.
4. Between slides
Every time you click to a new slide, the audience needs a moment to process a new visual. If you talk over your slides, then the audience feels like they need to catch up. That’s why I recommend pausing every time you click to a new slide. It gives the audience a chance to process the new image before they refocus on your speech.
5. Before your last sentence
A lot of presenters rush through the end of their presentation. When that happens, the audience doesn’t have time to digest the last thought before everything ends. Therefore, before your last sentence, be sure to take a moment and breathe before you share your last thought. Not only does this help the presentation feel more polished, but it also allows your conclusion to land much more effectively.
Pauses are powerful. That’s why I recommend pausing during key moments of your talk. This way, you help your audience relax, process information, and enjoy listening to your presentation.
Author: Bri McWhorter
We are used to instant gratification. We click a button and an article appears, we ask our phone a question and immediately get a response, and we can order an item and expect it to arrive the next day. We don’t live in a world where we patiently wait. Therefore, it’s difficult in presentations when people use phrases that tell an audience what they won’t be getting right now.
For example, people will use phrases such as:
I’ll go over that more later…
I won’t go into the technical details right now…
We don’t have a lot of time so I won’t go over the specifics…
I’ll explain that more in a few slides…
I’ll describe that in a bit…
These phrases are meant to help alleviate questions about more details, but what they really do is distract your audience from what you’re currently explaining. They start to think about what you aren’t sharing right now and it ends up disrupting the narrative. The audience won’t know that you aren’t sharing all the details unless you tell them.
So if an audience is listening to you — right now — you want to provide them with the information at that exact moment. If you aren’t going to talk about something for a while, just wait until you get to the point to bring it up. Don’t alert the audience to what they aren’t getting. Instead, just share the information you want and then you can go into more details when you get to that section. This way, your narrative keeps flowing and people can follow your message as you reveal it.
Author: Bri McWhorter
Every presentation is a conversation. Even though the audience isn’t speaking, they are still responding to the speaker’s content. There is a back-and-forth between the two parties. However, the more a talk sounds like a “presentation”, the easier it becomes for the audience to tune out. There is a subconscious distancing that can occur which makes it more difficult for the speaker to effectively communicate their message. That’s why I advise avoiding sentences that bring attention to the presentation such as:
1. In this presentation I’ll be talking about…
You wouldn’t start talking to a colleague by opening with, “In this conversation I’ll be sharing…” so I wouldn’t open a talk by saying, “In this presentation I’ll be talking about…”. Instead, just share the information without that formal set up. Think of how you’d start talking about this topic in a conversation and open that way instead.
2. I’ll go into that more in a few slides…
When people use this phrase, it minimizes the importance of the slide you’re actively sharing. The audience starts to think about what slides will be shown in the future, when that information will come up, and what that info will be. The audience’s attention jumps into the future and they might miss the details you’re currently talking about. If you share the information as you get to it, the audience is always paying attention to what is currently in front of them.
3. This slide shows you…
In conversations, images are used to reinforce ideas. They are helpful because pictures add context and specificity to a story. However, you wouldn’t share a photo and say, “This photo shows you…”. Instead, you’d share a bit of background and then show the image to add in more depth to your point. By eliminating that phrase, the slide becomes helpful for adding in details instead of something you are having to explain to the audience.
Great speakers want their audience to feel that their participation is necessary and appreciated. Therefore, if you wouldn’t use the phrase in a conversation, I wouldn’t use it in a presentation either. This way, your speech is approachable and your audience can feel more actively involved and connected to your content.
Author: Bri McWhorter
Back to back virtual meetings can be draining, so it makes sense to allow colleagues to keep their cameras off during certain events. Plus, everyone has a lot going on right now and it helps to give people the option of participating without worrying about kids running around in the background or WiFi bandwidth issues.
However, as a speaker it can be very difficult to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to a presentation when you don’t have anyone to talk to or interact with. It’s disconcerting to “check-in” with your audience and only see black boxes staring back at you.
Thankfully, there is one situation we are all comfortable with where you never see the person you are talking to, but it doesn’t throw you off — a phone call.
When you call someone, in order to visualize that person effectively, it's good to ask where that person is so you can picture them in that location and then deliver your story. Even though you never see their face, you can still feel energized because you can imagine their reactions in your head.
That’s why I recommend deciding two things if you're the only one on camera during a presentation:
Then, pretend you’re on a phone call during your presentation. Imagine the person reacting to your story and notice how your presentation changes. This way, you can keep the energy of your original talk without needing to see people looking back at you.
Author: Bri McWhorter
One of the biggest anxieties presenters have is how to handle the Q & A session after a talk. With so many variables at play, it’s completely understandable that people worry about preparing for every scenario. That’s why I’ve put together these tips to help you feel confident before your next presentation.
Scenario 1: You’ve never thought about that idea before.
Part of what makes presentations so wonderful is that it’s an opportunity for others to hear your ideas and share theirs. You’re not expected to have thought of every single possibility beforehand. That’s why you go to an event, to hear ideas from people with different backgrounds.
If someone brings up something new you could say:
“That isn’t something I’ve thought about before, but I’ll be sure to give it some consideration now that you’ve brought it to my attention.”
People appreciate when you take the time to listen to their ideas, even if you don’t have an immediate answer.
Scenario 2: You have no clue what the answer is.
If you don’t know what the answer is, instead of worrying — just tell them the truth.
You could say, “That’s a great question but not my area of expertise, so I don’t feel I can answer that right now.”
It’s important to remember that you’re human and you aren’t expected to have all the answers. As long as you don’t collapse and react negatively, the audience member will appreciate that you listened to their comment.
Scenario 3: You should know the answer, but can’t think of it.
If someone asks a basic question, and you freeze, let the audience know.
For example you could say, “That’s something I should know the answer to, but to be honest, at this moment it isn’t coming to me. I’m sure I’ll think of it right after this is over.”
People understand the stress that comes with presenting. Everyone has had a moment where they blank out. Just let people know what’s happening, and then you can move on to the next question.
Remember not to self-destruct when answering questions. You are human and you’re not expected to prepare for every possibility. Respond like you would if a friend asked you this question. If something surprises you, remember to breathe, state the facts, and then focus on continuing the conversation. That way, if you don’t know the answer to a question, it won’t matter. You can move on and still make a great impression.
Author: Bri McWhorter
Experiments don’t always go as planned and people commonly find themselves in situations where results take longer than expected. People often worry about how to present their work during a presentation, or at a conference, if they don’t have any data to show. Since people never know how an experiment will pan out, it’s important to feel confident sharing your project, even if you’re still working on it.
That’s why I’ve provided examples of phrases you can use below.
If you have no data yet, you could say:
We just started collecting data, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results.
We are in the process of analyzing the results and I look forward to sharing our findings with you soon.
We are about to run the experiment and I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if our hypothesis is correct.
If you have preliminary data you could say:
We are in the early stages of gathering data and at this point I’ve been seeing…
We just started to get our data back and what’s popped out at me so far is…
Since this is preliminary data the overall themes and takeaways may change, but so far I’m seeing…
Many projects take longer than expected and it’s fine if you don’t have data or results to share. Just make sure you don’t end your presentation on that note. Instead, I recommend ending with the big picture. That way people leave your presentation thinking about the importance of your work and they can look forward to hearing what you find out next.
Many people feel pressured to memorize their presentations. That’s completely understandable because if you’ve worked hard preparing a talk, you want to make sure you’re not forgetting those key ideas. However, I usually advise against memorizing a talk because when you worry about getting every word correct it can take your focus away from the main goal of the presentation — connecting to your audience. Instead of worrying about remembering every word, here are three alternative ways to prepare for a talk:
1. Change “memorize” to “familiarize”
Instead of memorizing, think of it as “storytelling”. For example, when you go to a small get together, you often tell stories without practicing every word in the story. Instead, you think about how the story starts, where something changes, and specific points you want to highlight. Each time you tell this story, you realize some points you want to say a little differently or put more emphasis on. That’s how you should think of preparing for a presentation. It’s not about getting everything perfect — it’s about knowing the order of your story and certain points that will make an impact.
2. Practice key moments
An audience pays the most attention during the introduction, transitions, and conclusion of a talk. Therefore, those are the parts I practice the most. If you know how you want to start your talk, how the ideas connect, and the last idea you want to share, you’ll be adequately prepared. As long as those moments are polished, you will leave the audience with a professional impression of your speech.
3. Practice without looking at the slides
Most people practice presentations staring at their screen. Then, when they go to give a talk, they get thrown off because their view has changed. That’s because when you’re talking to an audience, there are far more variables to look at. Therefore, I recommend practicing in different environments. That way, when you give your talk, you’ll have an easier time remembering your content.
Instead of worrying about “memorizing” a talk, think about telling a story, rehearse the main sections, and practice without looking at your slides. This way you can still feel prepared before your talk and you can focus on the main reason you’re there — to share your ideas with your audience in the best possible way.
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.