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At a Loss for Words…in the Worst Sort of Way!

Microphone_AudienceThere I was, on the “big stage” at the Toastmasters District 3 Tall Tales contest. I began my speech by saying:

“Ladies and gentlemen, have you ever…”

Almost immediately, the little voice in my head kicked in and said, “That’s not what you’re supposed to say!” and my mind instantly went blank.

I could not remember the rest of my speech!

Three months prior, I decided to take a stab at competing in speech contests. This was my first experience being a contestant, because for several years, I either was not interested in competing or was ineligible because I was serving in Toastmasters leadership.

I made my way through each level of the contest process without missing a beat – from the club level, through the area and division levels, then finally the district (state) level. I managed to put together a great story (loosely based on a time in my past) and was able to present it well, adding elements to it at each level.

Everything seemed to be working well…until that moment on the big stage.

Thankfully, my “memory loss” happened during the microphone check, and not the actual speech. I still had about 2 hours before the contest began. The bad thing was…my speech seemed to be completely erased from my memory.

I was at a loss for words, in the worst sort of way!

In an instant, my mind started racing. That “little voice” chimed in…”What are you going to do?!?” I could feel the sense of panic start to set in. Thankfully, I remained mindful enough to realize what was going on internally, and was able to calm myself down rather quickly. I remembered a couple of specific items to check before removing the lapel microphone I was to use. Once I finished the test, I began the process of resurrecting and restoring the speech back into my memory, as well as giving myself a “pep talk.”

The wise words of a couple of my mentors came in very handy…”If you know the beginning and the ending of your speech, you will be able to fill the gap in between.”

They were right. My ending was easy to remember, because that was when I was using my prop. All I really needed to do was get my opening line right. I knew that if I could do that, everything else would fall into place. Hey, I lived the story I was telling…sort of. During the opening ceremony and part of the dinner I concentrated on my opening line. Occasionally, I would have a quick conversation with someone, then test myself to see if I could remember the line. I also kept telling myself, “You know this speech. You have given it dozens of times. Once you get past that first line, it will be smooth sailing!”

The next thing I knew, the contest was on, and it was my turn to speak. I was the fourth contestant out of a total of eight – the middle of the pack. My name and the title of the speech was called, and I shook the announcer’s hand as I made my way to the stage. This was the moment of truth. Will the right words come out of my mouth?

“Ladies and gentlemen, you might not believe this looking at me today, but at one time…I had hair!”

YES! My opening line was perfect! And just as predicted by my mentors, everything else fell into place. At the end of the night, I walked away with the third place trophy – pretty good for my first speech contest.

I still cannot explain why my brain seemed to lock up before that speech. It just “happened.” I can tell you that I learned some very valuable lessons that will stick with me for a long time. If you ever encounter a “loss for words” before your next presentation, remember:

  • First, and most important – panicking over the situation does you no good whatsoever. If I had fed into the panic that I initially felt, I would not have been able to think clearly enough to solve my dilemma, and my performance would have suffered greatly.


  • Keep talking to yourself in a positive manner. Just like panicking in a situation, negative self-talk does you no good, and can actually make things worse. Positive self-talk can help you keep your energy up, as well as help you focus on solutions, rather than blaming or degrading. It will make a big difference in the energy that you give out when you’re on stage. Your audience will sense your negative mood, no matter how you try to hide it!


  • Assuming that you know, and have practiced your material – if you know your opening line, and how you are going to end your speech…you can fill the gap in between. It may not be exactly word-for-word as you planned or practiced, but remember that your audience won’t know that. One of the things that I have learned that helps immensely is practicing impromptu speaking skills. Working on these skills helps to train your brain to think quickly and give you the ability to “fill in the gaps” in your presentation, if needed.


  • A bonus tip – I have found that visualizing portions of my speech helped make it easier to recall and remember. I created “snapshots” in my mind that would help jog my memory while I gave my speech. I would go from “snapshot to snapshot” as I progressed through the speech. If you are not a visual person, maybe you could think of certain keywords or feelings that will trigger your memory. Find out which method works for you, and give it a try!


These tips may seem basic to some people. Some may even say they are common knowledge. However, I hope this serves as a good reminder. It’s easy to forget about this and panic in the “heat of the moment” just as I almost did that night. If you experience a challenge such as this, keep these suggestions in mind, and know that you will succeed!

Have you ever had an experience like this?

From your experience, what suggestions would you add to this list?

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