How to prevent and recover from mind blanks

by Olivia Mitchell

Are you concerned that you might suffer a mind blank during a presentation? The fear of a mind blank can be a large part of the fear of public speaking for many people. It happened to Sally Field in her Emmy Acceptance speech in 2007:

How can you avoid this happening to you?

How to reduce the risk of a mind blank

These strategies fall into three areas: your beliefs about presenting, rehearsal strategies and presenting strategies:

1. Useful beliefs to reduce the risk of mind blanks

Silence is OK

Do you find silence uncomfortable when you’re presenting? If you have a mind blank, you’ll be desperate to fill the silence. That piles on the pressure and makes it harder for you to think of the word you want.

So get comfortable with silence when you’re presenting. Video yourself rehearsing with friends and colleagues and make a point of elongating your silences past what is comfortable for you. Then look back at your video with one of your friends and see whether the silence was OK from the audience’s point of view. If you don’t have a video, simply ask for your friends’ opinions. Most often you’ll find that what felt like an eternity to you, was a momentary pause for the people watching.

There is no such thing as the right word

Often we suffer mind blanks when we want to get just the right word. Most of the time there are alternatives – even specific technical terms can be described using other words. For example, DNA could be described as “the complex double-helix molecule that makes up the genes of animals”.

When you’re rehearsing, practice saying things in alternative ways. If you weren’t allowed to use a particular word, how would you express yourself. Challenge yourself to come up with as many different ways as possible.

A mind blank is not a catastrophe

It’s easy to become focused on what you see as the horror of suffering a mind blank. And I get that it can feel pretty awful at the time. If it’s happened to you before, consciously work on putting the incident into perspective with the help of these questions:

  • Can anyone else who was there, remember it?
  • Did it affect your career?
  • Have you handled worse things in your life?
  • Would you prefer to suffer a mind blank or lose your hand?

2. Rehearsal strategies

Don’t memorize your speech

Memorizing your speech is a counterproductive approach. It leads you to thinking there’s only one way of saying something. If you suffer a mind blank your brain will focus on trying to remember the memorized speech, rather than think of alternative ways of saying the same thing. This is a point that most presentation bloggers seem to agree on. Check out what these bloggers have to say:

Joey Asher Should I memorize my presentation?
Lisa Braithwaite Can you be prepared and still be spontaneous?
Mike Pulsifer Dealing with nerves

Prepare and practice with hard-copy notes

Having hard copy notes that you can refer to is essential. Giving a speech without hard copy notes is like getting into a small boat without a life jacket. If things go wrong you’re stuffed. Here are some guidelines on creating notes.

Do rehearse with your notes so that you check that your notes do indeed remind you of what you want to say next – rather than leaving you even more flummoxed. I’ve seen people stare at their notes in horror because they can’t read their own handwriting.

Practice remembering

If you can’t think of what you want to say during a rehearsal, don’t jump straight to your notes. Try and remember what you want to say. This will strengthen your memory for the flow of the presentation and will train your brain to remember – rather than panic.

Develop a recovery routine

Work out how you’ll recover from a mind blank. Here’s my suggested recovery routine:

  1. Stop talking
  2. Look at your notes and find your place
  3. Look ahead in your notes to see what comes next
  4. Decide what you will say next
  5. Look up again
  6. Find someone to talk to
  7. Start talking.

Practice the routine

Military units and emergency response teams practice what they will do when things go wrong. So should you. Practice your recovery routine so that it becomes second nature. Then if your mind goes blank, instead of panicking, you’ll automatically start the routine.

Presenting strategies

Use gestures

Gesturing helps your fluency and your ability to retrieve specific words. In one scientific study researchers found that people with unrestricted gestures were more fluent than people who had their arms immobilized. In a second study, the researchers concluded:

Participants with unrestricted hand gestures retrieved and subsequently recalled significantly more words than participants whose hands were restricted.

You may be restricting your hands by holding them together or putting them in your pockets. If you feel them come together, separate them. You’re likely to start gesturing just as you would in normal conversation.

Use your notes

Refer to your notes even when you don’t need to. Often people suffer a mind blank because they’ve been talking away without any help from their notes and then suddenly their brain isn’t feeding them any more information. They don’t think of looking at their notes because they’re not in the habit of it. And even if they did, they would have difficulty finding the right place in their notes, because they’ve galloped ahead. So get in the habit of looking at your notes.

If you start feeling wobbly, activate the routine

Often you get prior warning that you’re heading for a mind blank. It’s like you’re a train rattling down the tracks and you start to feel a wheel getting wobbly. The sensible thing to do is to stop the train, put the wheel back on the track, and then carry on.

Take the pressure off

A moment of forgetfulness turns into a mind blank because of the pressure you put on yourself in that moment. So remind yourself that:

  • You have time. One of the reasons that Sally Field got so flustered was that she was racing against the clock. You’re unlikely to be in quite the same situation.
  • It’s OK to be silent
  • You don’t have to get exactly the right word
  • You have notes to help you out.

2. How to recover from a mind blank

You practiced your recovery routine – now’s the time to use it. Look at your notes. You may have trouble focusing on the words. Take your time till you’ve found your place and what you want to say next. When you’re ready look up, find a friendly person to look at and start talking again.

Because you’ve been referring to your notes earlier in your presentation, your moment of blankness will go unnoticed by the audience, unless you draw attention to it. Do not verbalize your inner turmoil the way Sally Field did. As with other things than can go wrong in a presentation, it’s not the mistake that matters it’s the way you react to the mistake.

What if you haven’t got notes to kick-start your presentation? Here are two suggestions:

  1. Do a quick rewind to the start of the sentence you were on. This is what Sally Fields did and it got her flowing again.
  2. Ask the audience “I’ve lost my place – where was I?” This is also a good tactic if you can’t remember the name of a book, film or person. Describe it and someone will help you out.

What’s worked for you to prevent and recover from mind blanks?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Witt May 8, 2009 at 2:38 am

Olivia,

Wow, what a wealth of great advice. I second everything you’ve said.

I didn’t know about the study of gestures and how they helped people recall what they wanted to say. (As someone who gestures a lot naturally, I like that.) I’ve approached the question of gesturing and remembering in a different way. Whenever someone’s mind locks up, I usually find that their body also locks up. They stand stock still. Just gettting them to move — to walk to the podium and look at their notes or to take a sip of water — gets them out of that frozen state and often gets their minds moving again.

Chris

Reply

Olivia Mitchell May 10, 2009 at 11:43 am

Hi Chris

I think what you’ve found to work ie: getting people moving, is exactly what the research demonstrates. Freezing is another manifestation of the flight or fight syndrome. Get the body moving and the mind will move better too. Olivia

Reply

Sarah Gershman October 23, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Olivia – This is a terrific post. I just linked to it and blogged about it…

http://sarahgershman.blogspot.com/2009/10/prepare-for-your-fallibility-mind-blank.html

thank you!

Sarah

Reply

Kevin Kane December 6, 2010 at 10:01 am

But if you frequently refer to notes while presenting, you won’t be able to make as much eye connection.

And your speech will be less engaging — it might become more of a note-reading session than a discussion with your audience.

Many speakers at TED present without notes. I think the rest of us can, too.

Reply

Olivia Mitchell December 7, 2010 at 10:39 am

Hi Kevin
I agree that you don’t want to be looking at your notes all the time while you’re presenting. And some people may be able to present without notes without a problem. But many people really struggle without notes and I don’t see a big problem with people presenting with notes as long as they use them effectively so that they can still make eye connection with the audience. Here are the most important tips:
1. Stop speaking to look at your notes. Once you know what you want to say, look up again, find someone to talk to and start speaking again (Analogy: when you’re driving a car, you stop driving to look at the map – same thing with speaking and notes).
2. Finish your sentences making eye connection with someone in your audience. Wait a beat before looking down at your notes. So many presenters drop their eyes away to see what they want to say next before they’ve finished the sentence. This weakens their presence and authority.
Olivia

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Kevin Kane December 7, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Fair enough, Olivia!

Today I did a speech and I didn’t use notes, but I did make eye connection with one person per sentence.

This was very revealing! I noticed everyone’s facial expressions: some people laughed, some people smiled, and some people (one or two) looked comatose.

I was also surprised by how many people stared at my slides without seemingly noticing me looking at them. My slides were simple: one assertion (the same one that I verbalized) over a big picture that reinforced the assertion.

I guess my slides are more attractive than me. ;-) I’ll consider either simplifying my slides further, or using more “black” slides, or just using fewer slides.

Reply

Olivia Mitchell December 8, 2010 at 8:26 am

Actually “seeing” people and their reactions while you’re presenting is part of creating a genuine connection with people in your audience.

The fact that some people looked at your slides rather than you is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not who/what they’re looking at which is important, but whether they’re getting your message. So if the slide is distracting them from the message – then yes that would be an argument for simplifying your slides. But if your slide is helping them understand your message, then there’s no problem.

Olivia

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Lin July 4, 2013 at 4:08 am

This is the greatest fear…the mind blank. Altho’ I’ve practiced, tried memorizing at times, once I stand in front of the group and see those faces staring at me…it seems every so often it just happens. I feel notes are helpful to have on the podium and it should be alright to use them if needed. I’ve heard notes are not acceptable under any circumstances, which seems rather extreme. Granted, don’t read your notes verbatim, but have them handy as a reference. Any thoughts on notes?

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