When a Speaker’s Mind Goes (Completely) Blank

by Claudia Brogan (c) 2015
When working with aspiring speakers, I have found out at least one secret fear that we all have about public speaking.  What will I do if my mind goes blank?

Even more than the fear that there is a trap door in the center of that speaking area, it’s like we WISH there would be a trap door, once our mind has gone blank!

The 3 Truths

The truth is that this happens to most speakers. The second truth is that -though gulp-inducing- this occurrence is quite survivable, by employing one or more useful tips. The third truth is that by handling the blank-mind moment with grace, this can be an empathetic moment between the speaker and the audience.

It Even Happens to the Pros

Recently I listened to a presentation made by a professional speaker. Having prepared carefully, he spoke without notes and moved comfortably around the front of the room. The opening was smooth and polished, the eye contact direct and connective.

Then came a moment that was Solid Gold.

This speaker drew in a deep breath, looked around the room at his listeners, paused…and then he apparently drew a complete blank about the next point he was planning to make.  Silence.  For what likely felt to him like eons, his brain searched silently for the next logical words.

Swiftly, you could feel the atmosphere in the room become thick with focus. Each audience member related to this speaker. I think we have all been in his shoes.
I noticed as folks around the room watched him, with empathy and good-vibes and patience. Each of us itching along with him. Each of us willing the Next Good Idea.
And THEN, voila! Along came his inspiration, and his visible Ah-Ha, and out came his excellent remarks. They were splendid.

This professional modeled for each and every one of us right then, “You’re a good speaker, you can do this. Give it a gulp. But stand right up there. Take a few seconds, take as long as you like. Be present. And your next thought will come. It will. Trust it, then speak it, then you’ll have the audience right in your hands.”

4 Tips for Preparing Yourself

Here are four tips for preparing yourself for this event, if you find that your mind goes blank:
  • Breathe in calmly. Pause, look at audience members. As he was silent, the most brilliant thing that this speaker did was refuse to panic. Refrain from nervous gestures or apologies. Simply pause.
  • Have an emergency plan on hand.  Set a note card on the podium with a few key words to prompt you. Also have a pertinent quote on that card, which you can read to the audience. Walk purposely to the location where your note card is located.
  • Try repeating with emphasis the last sentence that you had just said. To reinforce the idea, to underscore its relevance, but also with the idea that this will serve as a “page refresh” in your memory, which is very likely.
  • As you begin any speech, always have your conclusion sentence in mind. No matter where you’re going, know where you will end up. If you lose your train of thought along the way, then move ahead to your conclusion – deliver it with emphasis and poise. That will give the audience a strong takeaway at the close of your remarks.
I got the chance to witness an excellent example of a speaker’s Grace Under Pressure. Wholly survivable, this experience worked well for him and for his audience. With practice and forethought, the same can be true for you.

Claudia Brogan is a speaker, trainer and facilitator who helps organizations by coaching presenters, leading collaborative meetings and problem-solving with groups and teams. Reach out to see how she can help you.
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Making Our Words Count as Speakers

Serving as a coach for teams to improve their communication and cooperative has been quite rewarding and fun.

I have such a great passion for the way that team members can improve the way that they connect with each other. Whether I am designing and delivering staff development events, or coaching members about better ways to express themselves, I find that there is no more exciting work than bringing people together in new ways. Engaging, inviting, and connecting people: these are endlessly interesting to me.

With a unique background, I bring together both my passion for public speaking and my expertise as a counselor. In other words, I am able to deliver lively, animated presentations, as well as listen closely to the verbal and nonverbal responses provided. I am a great speaker (aloud) and a great listener (quietly).

This combination of traits helps me bring incredible talents to non-profit groups and professional teams:

  • I can help strangers become comfortable and collegial by using fun, non-threatening activities to help us become acquainted
  • I can deliver an engaging, thought-provoking keynote speech with remarks for action steps and applications
  • I can help brand-new members of a team onboard and get connected to their new group
  • I can help a seasoned group get to know one another better and develop cooperative team approaches which will apply to their workworld
  • I can provide useful information about personalities and personality theory in the workplace, in order to help us each “be smarter” about those around us
  • With great enthusiasm, smarts and a fun sense of humor, I can help pull these and other related topics together in ways that nudge and inspire group members to work together for shared results

Being bold: starting out with gusto, humility and an open heart

Stepping out to create my own independent business has been a real trip for me. I continue to learn and shape the vision for what I really really want to do (thanks, for example, to the smart questions that writer/ coach Martha Carnahan poses for me to ponder).

One thing that I am grateful for, all the time, is the way that folks “loan me their courage”—in big and in small ways. I thrive on reading posts from trainers who are setting out on their own ventures for being a Trainer-For-Hire. I listen aptly when people describe what they have done when carving out a mission statement, or generating ideas for contacts they can make to pitch their services.

I have become a bit like velcro—I listen with care to the simplest everyday statements that people make about the hope they feel in their hearts for a new thing they’re undertaking, or a place where they have received inspiration.

The image that I have chosen for today’s post is a photo I took alongside the Wisconsin River, a place that I love dearly. Seems to me that feeling well-grounded, well-nourished, inspired and appreciative can help one start out on a new venture. Take the first few steps: know that you’ll get some things wrong and you’ll get a few other things very very right.

I aim to use this spot as a sort of accountability place. So here and now I say: I will use the next two weeks as a time for sharpening my vision and naming the specific arenas that I’d like to target in shaping my new independent business. Having explored options (like a big mental brainstorming time!) I am now ready to write & draw & outline & word-craft the arenas that I’d like to address.

Forward is a word that sounds very strong and empowering to me: FORWARD. Baby steps or excited leaps over the rain puddles. I want to dig down deeply to enjoy and savor these days, to explore with an open mind and an open heart.

! Flavia: Life is brief