The Art of Planning to Forget What You’re Planning to Say

Do you share my occasional fear, when addressing a large group, whether it be a jury or a room full of potential clients, that I will forget what I’ve prepared to say? Go ahead, admit it.

Well, I’ve been wrong all of these years to be afraid of forgetting. According to Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter, authors of The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers, it’s not a question of whether I’ll forget, but rather how will I recover when I forget. Turns out that forgetting is inevitable.

“That you will forget periodically while speaking under pressure is a given. Think how easily you can lose your train of thought when conversing with your friends. You pause and confess, ‘I lost my train of thought. What was I talking about?’ If this happens regularly during casual conversation, it’s bound to happen during more formal presentations. The obvious solution? Plan to forget. Know that it is going to happen, and be prepared.” (Id. at 81.)

The authors offer a couple of intelligent strategies to plan to recover when you’ve forgotten. First of all, get comfortable with silence. This will not only make your recovery smoother when you forget, but I believe it will make you a better, more compelling speaker overall. If you’re comfortable with silence, you’re less likely to rush to fill empty, silent spaces, and more likely to use strategic pauses for dramatic effect. Whenever I see a skilled public speaker at the top of his or her game, I’m always impressed with their pacing and liberal use of pauses to maintain the audience’s interest or build dramatic effect.

If you become comfortable with silence, I suspect you’re also more likely to relax and remember what you think you forgot. The authors write, “pause long enough in silence to make sure you really can’t remember what you wished to say. The next thought may not quite be on the tip of your tongue, but it is almost certainly somewhere in your brain. Give yourself a moment to find it. ” (Id. at 82.)

Of course, if you really can’t remember, don’t sweat it. Give yourself a moment to review your notes. In this regard, the authors suggest making a “transitional utterance.” For example, if you’ve completed a thought and just can’t recall what’s next, perhaps say “Let’s move on” and consult your notes. “You are moving on, so it makes sense to refer to your notes to see what is next. Or, you can use the same line simply to stop and think.Your audience will understand what you are doing. You have announced that you are moving on, and they see that you are thinking.” (Id. at 81.)

If you can’t remember a precise fact, such as a date or dollar amount, the authors recommend handling it this way:

“Now the date the contract was signed [you suddenly can’t remember, so you say] . . . 

I want to get this exactly right [and return to consult your notes] . . . the date was September 17th.” (Id. at 82.)

The authors suggest that this strategy can actually enhance your credibility. When you review your notes, “[t]he audience sees such careful behavior as an indication of due diligence; it can even boost the speaker’s credibility.” Id.

So, next time you’re planning a presentation, don’t forget to plan to forget what you’re planning to say. (Do I sound like Dr. Seuss?)

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