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Dave Hill - Presentation Skills Excellence Article

Imagine you are speaking at a National Speakers Association (NSA) convention where there are over 2000 people in the audience. A few minutes into your dynamic presentation, your mind goes blank. You go into panic mode standing there, looking at the audience. Your breathing gets heavy, your face shows trauma and you make a few apologetic words and walk to a table where you have some notes. By this time, your brain is in meltdown mode, and even with the notes, your flow of thoughts does not come back. The polite, respectful audience rises and applauds with cheers of encouragement, but the meltdown continues. You stumble through sentences that are embedded with apologies and once you are finished you walk off the stage. How do you feel?

I witnessed this event at an NSA Convention. I felt a knot in my stomach as I recalled an occasion when I had experienced a momentary mind blank in years gone by when I was delivering a keynote speech to over 1000 youth at a middle school career day. I remember the anxiety I felt as my brain searched for the flow of words. I recall being frustrated afterwards as I had practiced my presentation so that it would be flawless.

Why do speakers get mind blanks?

Under stressful conditions, the brain can occasionally become unreliable due to the inherent “fight or flight” human survival mechanism. Panic can induce chemical reactions in the brain that can result in short mind blanks. The following are some circumstances where a presenter could encounter a mind blank:

  1. The structure of the presentation is not road-mapped in a logical, easy to remember way.
  2. There wasn’t enough practice and/or not practicing out loud.
  3. Memorizing the presentation word for word rather than learning the structure and order of the key points and stories. If you miss a key word, a level of panic can creep in as you search for the continuation of the memorized sentence.
  4. There are stress drivers such as:
    • You were rushing to put together last minute details before your presentation and did not get time to meditate.
    • You were stressed out because of audio visual problems.
    • The meeting planner tells you at the last minute that you need to cut your keynote from 45 minutes to 20 minutes.
    • There are defined speech time limitations and you focus on the clock rather than your presentation content.
    • There is a sudden noise in the room such as a waiter dropping plates or there is loud noise from the adjacent room.
    • You are concerned that you may get questions that you cannot answer.
    • You are not sure if your content is on target for your specific audience.
  5. The momentary split second silence associated with mind blanks can seem like minutes to a speaker and can cause escalating panic, with the immediate need to fill the silence. Silence to a speaker can be unnerving.

Success strategies to reduce the possibility of a mind blank:

  1. Visualize yourself being successful; do not allow negative thoughts to cloud your mind.
  2. Structure your presentation so it flows in a logical path and is easy to remember
  3. Prepare, prepare, prepare, and practice aloud. If there are certain words or sentences you keep stumbling on or forgetting, make changes until you find wording that is easy to recall.
  4. Practice to the point that you are not stumbling and your stories come across as spontaneous rather than memorized word for word
  5. Meditate, listen to music, or find a quiet place to gather your thoughts

Success strategies if you should experience a mind blank:

  1. Pause – mentally revisit your previous words or point to see if you can get back on track. The audience may not even recognize that you have had a mind blank.
  2. Acknowledge that you have lost your place, make eye contact with someone close to you in the audience and ask them in a jokingly manner with a retort such as, “I have just lost my train of thought, what was that last memorable point I was making!”
  3. Develop a list of lighthearted statements that you could use and practice using them. Make fun of the situation:
    • “OK, I have just had a complete brain wipeout….my brain is recalibrating”
    • “Wow, my brain has gone blank. I turned 50 recently….I never imagined my brain would be the first thing to fail me”
  4. Do not dwell on the mind blank and/or apologize to the audience. You are human and the audience is over it before you know it.

Considerations for using emergency notes:

The goal should be to minimize the use of notes, as they can distract and diminish the level of eye contact and engagement with the audience.  When you are using notes at a lectern, you are also anchoring yourself and preventing the use of purposeful movement that could enhance your presentation.  It can be very distracting when a speaker has to walk back and forth to a lectern or table solely for the purpose of reading notes.

  1. Occasionally I carry a note-card in my pocket which contains a few bullet points to prompt me should I lose my way in a presentation.  I keep this in a consistent place (such as my right hand inner jacket pocket), so I am not distracting the audience by having to search for it. I practice retrieving it.
  2. Keep the information on the stiff card paper to key words, brief sentences, or bullet points and use a large enough font size so a mere glance will put you back on track
  3. Try and keep to one card if possible but if you need several, number the cards in case you drop them and need to assemble them in a hurry.  Practice using these cards to make sure they contain adequate bullet points and are effective in getting you back on track.
  4. Another approach would be to mind-map your presentation on an index card so that you have a quick visual. Again, use a large enough font size so a mere glance will put you back on track
  5. To keep the notes less obvious, do not staple them together or print double-sided (so that you do not have to visibly manipulate them).
  6. Put a glass of water near your notes so you can walk towards the water (walking gives you time to get your thought pattern back). If the notes are beside the water you can now glance at them while you take a sip of water if you still have not gotten back on track.
  7. Some presenters and trainers use handouts or worksheets with “fill in the blanks”.  These handouts can help you stay on track (the handout is used as a step-by-step guide).