How Do I Avoid Wandering off the Topic while Delivering Presentations?
A few years ago, while visiting friends for the weekend, I accepted their invitation to go with them to church on the Sunday morning. It came time for the main sermon, and the pastor was really entertaining. He had everybody laughing and relaxed, and he was getting his point across. Surprisingly, I was actually listening attentively to him.

Slowly though, he seemed to drift off topic, and while he was still really entertaining and amusing, it became increasingly difficult to see what point he was really wanting to convey.

On the way home, in the car, I asked my friends about it. Apparently he is always like that. Many years ago, before becoming a minister, he had lived a really wild life, and blamed taking too many drugs as the reason that his memory was so bad. So apparently he always wondered off topic, but because he was humorous, his congregation loved him and accepted it.

Wandering off topic while giving presentations

As a visitor though, I could not help but leave and wonder what he had wanted people to take away from his message? And many people do this. If not carefully prepared, they wander off topic, and do not stick to the point. I have seen sales people delivering a sales presentation go completely off track about something unrelated to their product or how their product matches the client’s need. By the time they came back on track, they had lost the client’s interest. Chances are, if you lose their interest, you will probably lose the sale.

Now, I am not suggesting that you cannot change tack in a public speech. The greatest orators, like Martin Luther King Jr., often used to change tack midway through an address. The difference is that they were doing in intentionally. They recognised the need to change, and deliberately did so. King changed his planned speech when delivering his famous I Have a Dream speech, as he felt something better suited the occasion. But he knew what to change to. He already had other material ready that he could change to. If you change tack, and wander off topic unintentionally, usually that content is not prepared and therefore not as engaging.

So, unless you are planning to change tack, be careful that you do not wander off topic. Stick to the point. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving people wondering what you were actually trying to say. And no matter what your goal from the talk was, that was not it. Stay focused. Stay on track. Successfully convey your message.

Are there ways to stay on track?

Different people plan public speaking and presentations differently. There are ways to stay on track, but they often depend on how you plan.

Memorising presentations
  • Some people memorise entire speeches. Word for word, gesture for gesture. Obviously, if you have the time to do this, and you know that you will not want to change deliberately for any reason, it will guarantee that you stay on track.
  • Some people plan the speech, but do not prepare every single word. They might either use notes, cards, teleprompter, or some other system to let them know what section to move onto next. They then talk around the related topic. This certainly will keep you on track in general, but can still allow you to wander a bit within a certain section.
  • Many people now use a tool like PowerPoint, or anything similar to it. They then use the slides as a guide to what to talk about next. If you have not prepared specific wording though, and maybe saved that into the text section of the slide for yourself, you can still go off topic.
  • Some people prepare blocks of content. That is what King did. He had many blocks covering many different subjects, and because each block was memorised, he could move from block to block and still actually have the next few paragraphs memorised. This allowed him to change tack, often without any awareness from anybody, unless they know what he had intended to say in the first place. You could use blocks just like him, and be able to change tack if necessary. For example, if you ask for feedback in a presentation, you could have different blocks prepared allowing for different responses from your audience.
  • Some people just use a couple of key words as prompts, and talk ad hoc around each subject. This is the most dangerous method. You run the risk of meandering from one topic to another, but it is still possible to have some ways to not wander off. I have seen minister’s wives in the front row of a church gesticulating to them when they wander off topic. Have you got a colleague or someone with you at the presentation? Let them guide you if they know what you should be saying.

As you can see from these tips, if you do wander off topic, and want to eradicate that from your presentations, maybe you need to relook at how you actually prepare for the presentation. Looking at different techniques to use might help you stay focused, and on message. And be flexible enough to change should you need to.

If you would like to read more on how Dr King wrote and delivered fantastic public addresses, look at I Have a Dream, which is a book that includes all of his famous speeches, and some other lesser known ones.

Do you have any other tips on how to stay focused? Do you memorise your speeches or just use a few key words as prompts?

For more information about presentation skills training courses, click here. And if you enjoyed this article, make sure to read the previous post in the series, How Do I Develop a System for Delivering Presentations?.