You’re halfway through your talk, and so far it’s going great. You feel confident, and your audience seems to be responding. Then, out of nowhere, your mind goes blank. Crickets. Tumbleweeds. The crushingly dark, noiseless void of outer space itself.
“What was I going to say here? Oh my God, I’m blowing it!”
If you’ve been in this situation, you know how awful that feeling can be–and how hard it is to shake off and regain your footing. So what can you do to prevent these mental wipeouts from happening in the first place? A few things, in turns out:
1. DON’T OVERSIMPLIFY
Yes, keeping it simple enough to be digestible is a smart public-speaking strategy in most contexts, but there is such a thing as going too far. For instance, if you try searching for just one word or phrase that describes a few different ideas, you may not actually hit on the right one. As a result, your thoughts get convoluted, twisted together–and your mind has to unravel each idea and then try to tie them all back together again.
Not long ago, I was working with a client whose mind went blank during a recent presentation simply because he “couldn’t find the right word.” When I asked him to describe what he was thinking about during that desperate, futile search for simple language to encapsulate everything he was trying to say, he told me he was thinking about three things:
- That his company was large;
- That they “insource” their business on occasion;
- And that insourcing was starting to become a trend in his industry.
That’s a lot of material–it’s no wonder his mind went blank! He was trying to compress three related yet distinct ideas into a single-phrase sentence. What he really needed to do was address each of these points sequentially, rather than try combining them into just one turn of phrase. When you’re preparing for a presentation, pin down each of your main ideas first, then search for straightforward language to convey them.
If you try to oversimplify things, you may find yourself struggling to find it while all eyes are on you.
2. NEVER SAY HOW MANY POINTS YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE BEFOREHAND
You should probably avoid telling your audience how many points you’re going to be making. Once your listeners have a number in their heads, they’ll start counting. If you forget which point you’re on, you’ll encounter that dreaded awkward silence as you try to remember where you left off.
Similarly, if you’re discussing your strategies, for example, don’t say “first of all,” “secondly,” “third,” etc. Just say, “One of our strategies,” “Another one of our strategies,” and so on. Avoiding these simple numerical turns of phrase can help you prevent your mind from blanking because you’ve forgotten where you are in the sequence.
3. DON’T END ON PRONOUNS
You also want to avoid ending your points with pronouns like “it” or “that.” For example, if you’re discussing specific reasons why you chose one approach instead of another, don’t say, “. . . is one of the reasons we decided to do that.”
Pronouns like “that” are too vague for public speaking. Once you start explaining yourself, you could end up forgetting what “that” was referencing to begin with. Instead, keep naming the thing you’re tempted to replace with “that” or “it”–and don’t be afraid of sounding repetitive when you do. Repetition is actually a handy device for reminding both you and your audience what you’re talking about.
So if you can avoid ending your points with pronouns, you’ll reduce the likelihood that you’ll forget what you were in the middle of saying.
4. KEEP UP WITH YOUR OWN RHYTHM
You can’t get stuck when you stumble. I’ve seen so many speakers go through this cycle: First, they mispronounce a word. Then they think about how dumb it was that they mispronounced the word. And finally, their next thought is completely wiped out.
To make it through the wipeout, you need to reconnect with your rhythm. Step one is simply to breathe. When you breathe, you can get your body back in sync, and your thoughts will flow. Remember, the connection goes both ways–mind to body and body to mind. So if you can stay in sync with the rhythm of your talk, you’re less likely to lose your place to begin with.
Drawing a blank every once in a while is normal and happens to everyone–it doesn’t mean you’re a bad speaker. The real mark of a good speaker is knowing how to make that happen less often and to recover quickly when it does, and these four techniques can help you do both.