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Public Speaking: What if My Mind Goes Blank?

by: Lisa Braithwaite, M.A.

This might be the biggest concern of would-be speakers: "What if I forget what I was going to say?"

The horror! Imagine: You're standing in front of a room full of people. The seconds tick by loudly as you frantically search your memory for the next point in your talk. You clench the lectern, knuckles white, as the audience becomes restless and start shifting in their seats. You see them looking at each other, some with pity in their eyes, others with disappointment. Your mouth is dry and you feel hot as your face turns bright red and you begin to perspire. You start to feel woozy . . . and you crumble to the ground, mortified to death.

Now that truly sounds like a public speaking horror movie and it's a movie that plays in a lot of speakers' heads. But like most horror movies, it's pretty far removed from reality. With proper preparation, both physical and mental, you can handle anything that comes your way onstage, including the dreaded "mind going blank" monster. Slay the monster with these helpful tips.

Pointer 1: Bring your notes

Don't let anyone tell you that using notes makes you less professional. The key to using notes properly is to keep them out of sight and only refer to them when necessary.

Keep your notes to one piece of paper, single- or double-sided, so you won't find yourself shuffling through note cards or flipping through paragraphs of text if you do lose your place.

On your piece of paper, use simple bullets or a clean outline format in large text to lay out your main points and supporting points. When practicing your presentation, use these bullets to trigger the chronology of ideas in your head. Make sure to practice enough that you remember the presentation from start to finish; the notes are not a crutch, but rather a backup tool.

When giving your talk, keep your notes on a table or on the lectern to your side. When you need a refresher about what comes next, take a few steps over and casually look at your notes.

This will not offend your audience or send them into shock. In fact, it makes you look more human, rather than a perfectly polished and mechanical speaker. And taking a step or two to view your notes serves more than one purpose; it adds movement to your talk, and it allows a healthy pause for the audience to process the information you've been giving them. This will feel perfectly natural to your audience.

You don't want to be pacing back and forth to your notes throughout your talk, which is why practice is important. However, just having the notes close by can act as a "security blanket," helping you to feel more comfortable knowing that they're there if you need them. You might find that you don't need the notes at all.

Pointer 2: Acknowledge that you've lost your train of thought

If it does happen that you forget your place, and it's going to take longer than a quick glance at your notes to get back on track, it's better to acknowledge this fact to the audience than to try and hide it. The audience can tell when you're not being honest with them or trying to fake them out. Make a human connection with them and say, "Hold on a sec, I've lost my place." Then take those two steps to your notes and find your place.

Seasoned speakers do this all the time, and the audience can relate. They won't judge you, because it's happened to them before as well. They will sympathize with you, not criticize you. The audience is not your enemy; they want you to succeed and they want to support you.

While doing your pre-presentation practice and preparation, visualize yourself experiencing this situation. Visualize yourself acknowledging that you've lost your place, finding your next point in your notes, and moving forward. Visualize yourself handling this situation with calmness and confidence, and even a little self-effacing humor if you feel so inclined. And visualize the audience as your encouraging, nurturing friend rather than your critical, judgmental enemy.

Pointer 3: Move on and forget about it

Now that you've acknowledged to the audience that you've lost your place, and you've looked at your notes, go ahead and pick up where you left off. Make light of the moment; say, "Now where were we?" and just keep going.

Think of the last sporting event you watched. You might have seen an athlete make a mistake or fall down at some point during the event. Did that athlete sit there, pounding on his forehead, saying "Stupid, stupid, stupid"? Of course not! That athlete jumped up and got right back into the game.

Remember the scene in "A League of Their Own" where the Tom Hanks character says to the sobbing player, "There's no crying in baseball"? Well, there's no time for feeling sorry for yourself in sports, and there's no time for feeling sorry for yourself in public speaking.

While you're on stage, you are responsible to the audience. You are responsible for serving them, for giving them the information they want or need, for being their guide. Don't waste their time feeling sorry for yourself and dwelling on your mistake. The sooner you move on, the sooner they will, too.

After your talk, take some time to analyze what happened and determine why you lost your place. Write it down so that the next time you are preparing for a presentation, you remember what happened and incorporate this into your practice.

By using clearly written notes, taking enough time to practice, visualizing yourself managing a potential mishap, and reframing the way you see the audience, you can handle any interruption or disruption. Whether it's the building alarm going off, the sprinkler system malfunctioning, or the dreaded "mind going blank" monster, you are the star and the director of the movie playing in your head. Make it a blockbuster!
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