It's 3.30pm, Saturday 13th May 2006... a hotel ballroom in Mullingar, Ireland.
The Final of the GB & All-Ireland Championship of Public Speaking.
You're about 1 minute into your speech - a speech you know inside out, back-to-front and more.
A little under 500 people in the audience.
But then it strikes.
Your mind goes blank.
Nothing. Nada. Not a sausage.
Yes, this did indeed happen to me. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
What do YOU do when you get the dreaded Speaker's Block?
In presentations? In meetings? In interviews?
[If you want to find out what I did in the speech contest, just keep reading.]
Typically, it strikes when...
You're in full flow and then for no obvious reason - or perhaps due to something unexpected happening (a phone going off, an audience member shakes their head, a door slams) your mind simply empties.
In coaching sessions over the years, it's one of the most feared challenges clients raise.
What do I do if my mind goes blank?
Panic? Curse? Reach into your pocket for notes? Call a timeout?
It won't surprise you to hear that...
There is no magic pill to prevent Speaker's Block striking.
However, what you CAN do is arm yourself with tactics to deploy as and when it hits. That way, even if your mind does go blank, you're more likely to remain calm in your own mind, you'll maintain composure and professionalism in the mind of listeners and give yourself a good chance of getting back on track.
Here are some options to consider...
1 Remember to Breathe!
When under stress, we have a natural tendency to stop breathing properly. By consciously reminding yourself to take a breath, you:
- Give yourself something to do
- Buy yourself some time
- Help your brain out with much needed oxygen
- Are more likely to stay calm
Yes, I did this in the speech contest.
2 Pause for Thought... in Silence
Believe it or not, simply allowing the silence to run on for a few seconds is OK. That extended pause may feel excruciating to you the speaker - but NOT to the audience! You have more leeway than you might think.
The key is to resist the temptation of signalling to listeners that you've lost your way. These signals include pulling a face, giving off a long protracted filler word like "Errrrr..." or (as I've sometimes seen happen) saying "Oh, sorry, I've completely lost my train of thought!" Bad plan.
Keep it neutral; pause in silence; gaze into space if you need to... there's a chance your train of thought will come back to you.
Yes, I did this in the speech contest.
This is key. If you're standing up while speaking, take a few steps to a different part of the speaking space. This movement reduces the adrenaline and helps to break the 'rabbit-in-headlights' feeling. Crucially, it gives you something to do while your mind regroups. It gives the audience something to do, too!
If you're sitting down, then consider what smaller scale movements you might do - pull up your chair, push your chair back from the table, take a sip of a glass of water, move some papers around or simply stretch your back and resettle yourself. Try these things out to see what works for you.
Yes, moving to a different part of the stage was crucial in helping me get back on track in the speech contest.
4 Take Another Run-Up
Speaker's Block can feel a bit like standing on the edge of a precipice, grasping at thin air in search for that elusive next sentence. Keep doing that and sooner or later, you'll topple into the canyon.
What if you were instead to repeat, re-emphasise or summarise what you've just been saying. In my experience, this is a far easier task for your brain - restating what has just been said (notice, I'm repeating myself here!). It's akin to taking a few steps back from the precipice and having another crack at crossing the canyon.
These are just some of the options open to you. There are, of course, others.
If you're serious about your communication and want to find out more, you may wish to check out my online video-based coaching system "High Impact Speaking".
Packed with practical tips, tools and insights, it distils thousands of hours of public speaking expertise into 9 Core Modules, available on-demand as and when you need.