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There are times when I'm telling a story to friends, having a discussion in a meeting or giving a presentation when I'll stumble over my words. This may result in a word coming out sounding like gibberish or in me saying a wrong word altogether.

I've observed this happening to other people around me and I've seen varied responses to this issue.

One friend will immediately stop the sentence to exclaim the word they got wrong:

...and then we had pengrates--pancakes!!--with some awesome strawberry...

However, from my perspective as a listener, it feels rather jarring for the cadence of the conversation to be interrupted by a sudden exclamation.

Another will just push through without acknowledging they made a mistake, which sometimes will work out. But there are times when I can't understand them and so either need to nod along or stop the conversation to ask them what they meant.

How can I continue a discussion/story/presentation when I stumble over my words like this in a way that will...

  1. Ensure that I'm understood
  2. Minimize the break in flow in the conversation/presentation and minimize listener/audience distraction
  3. Be simple to remember and implement in the moment of the mistake
24

Short answer: Personally, my reactions to messing up a word vary from nothing to immediate (but not exclaiming) correction, depending on the kind of word I messed up, how much I messed it up, and the reaction of the audience to me messing up. Big technical words uttered in important meetings get an immediate clarification, at other points I just carry on if I'm sure the context of the conversation is clear enough, or if I see people looking confused I might work the word into a sentence again. Most often though, people will ask before I notice.

If the exclamation is too distracting but you feel you were unclear, make sure to be clear. Following the mispronounced word up immediately is usually done without exclaiming:

...pengrates, sorry, pancakes...

Or move on like your friend does, and if you realize the mistake and see the audience looking confused, repeat the word correctly at a later (but not too far removed) point.

We had pengrates with some awesome strawberry ice cream. I like pancakes, but the ice cream really made the dish!

The first one is easy to remember, and if you do not exclaim (no raised voice, no hurrying up or slowing down) but just act like nothing much happened, people aren't likely to be massively distracted (see also 'long story'). The second takes a bit more practice to remember, and even more to pull off in a natural way, but I found that it often leads to 'relieved' faces of people finally understanding what I meant, and just being able to move on.


Long story:

No one probably cares much about your stumbling, so don't make a big deal of 'recovering'. Stumbling is something that happens to everyone, often, and while you may notice, there's a very probable chance other people won't. Most research into attention spans and distractions when it comes to processing language are done with test subjects having to remember/recall lists of things, but most of this research seems to suggest that:

  • A person's verbal memory span tends to be rather short and seems to match the general capacity of working memory:

    Verbal memory span, the longest sequence of words a person can repeat in the correct order immediately after hearing them, is strictly limited. In adults, memory span is typically equal to six or seven monosyllabic words. source

  • If you stumble across a word, it probably results in a non-word, for which memory spans are apparently even shorter:

    Immediate memory span and speed of memory search were assessed for words and nonwords of short and long spoken duration. Memory span was substantially greater for words than for nonwords and for short than for long items, though speed of memory search was unaffected by either length or lexicality. source

  • There is such a thing as an 'irrelevant speech effect', which might be the closest studied thing related to 'stumbling over your words' when it comes to attention spans:

    The irrelevant speech effect refers to the degradation of serial recall when speech sounds are presented, even if the list items are presented visually.

  • When it comes to irrelevant speech effect, you generally either need an 'unexpected deviation' or something meaningful to really distract people:

    While an unexpected deviation in the sound (e.g., Hughes et al., 2007) or a particularly meaningful sound (e.g., one’s own name; Röer et al., 2013) is typically necessary to divert most adults’ attention from a focal task, if general attentional control ability is very low (such as in children of the age studied here), then such ‘extreme’ events are unnecessary for attentional diversion: [...] [source]7

  • I looked up the article that talks about 'unexpected deviation' and it seems that this talks about a rather significant change, like a single change in voice (from female to male) within an irrelevant speech sequence. So, it seems this falls outside the limits of a single person messing up a single word too, unless you suddenly change pitch and start exclaiming, like one of your friends does.

All of this seems to confirm that stumbling isn't as distracting as you think it may be, and that recovering (by exclaiming) may be more distracting than just moving on and waiting to see if people need clarification/until they ask for clarification.

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  • I usually just stumble, try to repeat the word and stumble again, unsuccessfully try one more time then take a deep breath, sigh and finally saying the word I originally intended to say (usually with emphasis to indicate it's the word I was stuck on). It's taken a lot of practice to get even remotely close to being able to reliably tell a joke or story without messing it up. Thankfully I've learned to consistently condense my amusing anecdotes so they're actually amusing and not just a long waffle of irrelevant facts. – Clonkex Feb 12 at 4:40
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    @Clonkex there's also a very (jokingly) Dutch way of handling this, especially the repeated stumbling. Stumbling, or being unable to get your words out, in Dutch, is literally 'not being able to get out of your words'. So, instead of sighing/taking a breath, you could also exclaim 'gevangenis' (jail), as that's something you don't get out of either :P But that was a bit too Dutch and distracting to put in an actual answer about limiting distraction :D – Tinkeringbell Feb 12 at 9:54
  • I should tell that to my young kids.. That's how they do it: "We had pengrates with some awesome strawberry. I mean pancakes! lol we can't eat pengrates, pengrates isn't even a word. lol pengrates pengrates pengrates pengrates" – the_lotus Feb 12 at 16:22
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    There's always the Porky Pig Method™: Try 2-3 times to say the word, and then give up and find a synonym instead. It was a running gag with that character, but it has some basis in reality - Some people with serious stuttering issues will do just that when they run into a problematic word. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 12 at 19:23
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    @DarrelHoffman "Go bazoomble- babazoo- bam bamboo.... fool 'em!" – Clonkex Feb 12 at 22:18
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When you have to talk to a large audience, in front of people, whether you know them or not, it's important to use some tricks that

  1. will make you feel better because you know you handle the speech and the public
  2. will make your speech/story something the audience will want to listen to and follow.

I've been taught once, during a 2-days course, the 5 points I'm still using as of today, and it helps a lot:

  • enunciate
  • breath (pause)
  • flow
  • rythm/dynamism (pause/question?)
  • pause/silence

And the teacher, at the time, always told us, whenever you stumble over word(s) or stutter, that you should pause first. STOP. And go back a few words back, then start again. If the mistake is big, a huge blunder, or if you want to take a deeper breath (or even make them laugh), just pause, say a tongue twister (loud or not), pause, then go a few words back, and carry on. I usually go by some "We surely shall see the sun shine soon" or any other sentence, use a common one, that even kids know. Every language has some.

We noticed that any time we stumbled over a word, it was often because we broke the flow, going too fast, and then missing a word or mumbling. And it was better to "stop digging by putting the shovel down". So, stop talking, right away. And let people understand you made a mistake (say, 1-2 seconds), then go back to the proper word/sentence. Adding a funny twist depends on the audience.

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4

I stumble over my words often and use a mix of techniques, usually i try to repeat the word with better pronunciation preceded by a small introduction word such as "sorry", "i meant" or similar

We had pengrates -- sorry, pancakes --

We had pengrates -- no, i meant, pancakes --

When I realise the mistake later on, i try to decide if the context is sufficient to deduce the mistake i did or if i need to correct.

When I do I sometimes repeat a bit of the context so it fits well.

-We ate pengrates for dinner with a lot of strawberry. -Sorry ? -Oh, I meant we ate pancakes for dinner.

I try in all cases to capture if my audience understood well what I said. If I'm in a long presentation I sometimes punctuate and pause after asking "Is that ok" or "any question ?", so people are free to ask me to repeat some part. In a friendly conversation I'd just pause and make eye contact for them to smile or nod in approbation that they did. It helps ensuring you are understood and what part you may have to repeat, and it also helps keeping audience attention focused.

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Usually, I say "or rather", which flows very nicely in the sentence, and is proper enough to be used in novels.

We had pengrates, or rather pancakes, with stawberries.

Since it's technically proper, it has the least break in flow and makes the mistake seem least embarrassing. However, note that you are using it somewhat ironically, since most uses of "or rather" are intentional to contrast the true version of the item with what it first appeared to be (for example, "I was interested in what she had to say, or rather, I feigned interest").

Additionally, if the mistake sounds obvious or preposterous enough, then you can humorously disarm the situation by doubling down on the word and pretending that that's what you meant all along. This will show people that you know you made a mistake, and are not so self conscious about it that disrupted your mood. And they will like that confidence. For example,

I took my chide to school this morning. Then I took my child to school, because he got jealous that I spend all my time with my chide.

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My coping mechanism, depending on the context, is often to use it as an opportunity to emphasise a point - the thing is, it gives you a legitimate excuse to repeat your point. Or, if the situation permits, I use humour, which is a great way to make what you say stand out in people's memory. It can also be a source for much joy at the cost of others; during the recent elections in UK, I've several times heard a certain commentator talk about 'erection', like in "Boris Johnson's erection". Childish, I know.

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