Losing your train of thought happens – it’s just part of being a human with capability of speech. It’s not whether you fall victim to it or not – because everyone does – but what you do afterward that really sets speakers apart.
Why do we lose our train of thought? Engaging in speech of any kind requires a lot of cognitive effort. The brain must generate and hold on to ideas, piece the ideas together, and string them into coherent and well-phrased sentences. The human mind has a limited working memory, and sometimes it lags, especially when there are a lot ideas coming to it at once. There are limited “slots” for information in the working memory to be held.
Losing one’s train of thought is less like a train running off the tracks than it is a car coming to a crossroads. Imagine your mind is faced with multiple, possibly vastly different ideas about what to say (or how to say something) during a presentation. Unfortunately, this will (literally) give you pause. If more working memory slots are required than are available, then you’re likely to have to either quickly choose one or face that crossroads. When the mind can’t act fast enough, it’s doomsday for your sense of focus and intent. You’ll find yourself at a loss for words – at least momentarily.
A memory lapse may feel like an embarrassment, but it doesn’t have to be one. No one has to know you’ve lost your train of thought, as there are several good ways to hide it or at least make it less noticeable. In fact, spacing out for a moment can even be made to look like it was an intentional pause, simply a part of the experience of giving a presentation.
If you’re giving a talk, you’d better believe you’re going to lose your train of thought at some point. So take these tips for recovering from it, and leave an open slot in your open memory to make a swift rebound from your next “brain freeze.”
Make it Look Intentional
There are many reasons a speaker could be pausing in their message other than losing their train of thought. They might be considering what to do next (which isn’t the same thing), taking their time to carefully phrase their next statement, or giving the audience a moment to soak up the information. To make it look like you planned the pause, act naturally, and keep your notes close by. If you need them, you can explain to your audience that you want to read it out to them because of the importance of the content.
Paraphrase What You’ve Covered So Far
Losing your train of thought can also be thought of as getting ahead of yourself. So instead of continuing to charge forward, take a few steps back. Tell your audience that you want to review your previous points in preparation for what you’re about to say. Retracing your steps – and bringing your audience along with you – will get you back to where you need to be and keep everyone in step.
Ask Your Audience a Question
The great part about an interactive presentation is that you can always take the opportunity to hand it over to the audience when you feel you need a moment. Asking a poignant, meaningful question, like “What do you think is the most important point so far?” or “How did you feel about what I just said?” buys you time to think while you’re audience responds. Even if your presentation isn’t particularly interactive, you can still throw in a question when needed – even a rhetorical one – so long as it flows.
Drawing a blank during a presentation isn’t as big of a deal as it seems – so don’t make it into one. Remember, your audience can’t read minds – they don’t know what your train of thought looks like. So if it gets lost, act natural, be cool, and use these techniques to get back on track.