Ever had the experience of going blank in front of an audience? Forgetting what you were going to say and starting to panic? Or had an ‘out of body experience’ where you could hear yourself talking (even waffling)?! You may have felt like a horrified observer.
Experiences like these are hugely disconcerting but not unusual. For most of my clients, their biggest fear is forgetting what they want to say.
There are two common reasons why you forget what to say in front of an audience.
1. You are underprepared.
You may have jotted down a few bullet points and imagined yourself saying something coherent but have not taken the time to prepare thoroughly and practice aloud. Perhaps you underestimated the importance of an event, the audience size, or your ability to articulate your views and found it very challenging!
2. You panic
Before you speak, a few nerves are normal, natural, and even helpful. The stress hormones help you to focus and project energy. But as nerves turn into anxiety and then panic, the opposite happens.
When you panic, your body goes into flight-or-fight mode. Huge quantities of stress hormones circulate your body, your heart starts pumping blood faster, the blood rushes from your extremities to your limbs, getting you ready to fight or run, and your breathing speeds up. You might feel lightheaded.
It is no wonder you can't think with all that going on! You can't concentrate on your message while thinking and worrying about how you feel. Even if you are not in full panic mode, your memory will be affected if you are distracted by nerves.
These two reasons are closely related. The less prepared you are, the harder it is to remember and the more nervous you will feel. But even if you are well-prepared, you may have flashbacks to when you were under-prepared – which can bring on panic!
For anyone who has experienced this nightmare scenario, you will know that the more desperate you are to remember, the harder it is. So, what can you do to prevent it or handle it?
The key is to reduce the intense pressure on yourself to remember. You can do this in two ways. Firstly, by being well prepared so you don't have to think too hard to retrieve your next idea. Secondly, teach yourself how to react if you start to go blank. Let's look at each of these.
The more familiar you are with your subject matter, the easier to recall, even if you are experiencing nerves. Let's take an extreme example. If I asked you your name while you were having a panic attack, you could tell me. Unless you have multiple aliases, there is no effort involved in remembering your name!
Familiarity is important You need to be familiar with your content and the structure of your presentation. You achieve this by practising out aloud – many times if necessary. Your aim is not to memorise word-for-word (it will sound stilted and robotic) but to memorise the ideas and the order of ideas.
Secondly, have some notes or prompts to help you recall your next point. I don't mean complete sentences – I mean a few words that will help trigger your next point.
If I was talking rather than writing, my notes for this section might look like this:
That's all I would need. Enough to get me back on track if I forget where I am. Think of a to-do list. If I have a library book to return, I might write "return library book". I don't need to include the title, what library I am returning it to, or how I will get there.
Thirdly (you guessed it!), try to make your content easy to remember. Fact-filled presentations with lots of numbers are more challenging to remember. Abstract concepts and corporate speak (common in the corporate world) are even more difficult. Keep it simple and use examples and even stories. Stories have a double benefit – they are easy for you to remember, and they will stick with the audience.
I suggested not having fully written out notes. But what about reading off PowerPoint notes? Surely you can save yourself the risk of brain fade if you just read the notes?! True - but you won't be engaging or add any value. It would be more efficient to give your notes to the audience and give them five minutes to read!
What to do if you go blank
Let's say you are well-prepared but still go blank. You look at your notes, and all you feel is panic. Remember what I said earlier? Humans are terrible multitaskers, and you are too busy worrying about remembering to remember!
Here are some practical strategies to get you back on track:
Going blank when presenting is something that we all dread. It is easy to believe you have a bad memory – but that's rarely the problem. Worrying about your memory will make it worse.
If you are well prepared with easy-to-remember content and a few prompting notes, you should remember most of what you intended to say. But if you don't, there is no need to panic. Move on, buy yourself some time, take a sip of water, and let the wave of panic ride over you and dissipate. These strategies will help you overcome a momentary memory lapse and deliver a successful presentation!
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