What if I completely blank out during my presentation? This is understandably one of the most common fears associated with presentation anxiety. No one enjoys standing in front of an audience only to have his or her brain freeze up. But why exactly does this phenomenon happen, and what should you do if it does?
Why It Happens
On days when I lecture to my classes, I’m generally speaking for about 4 hours. It is inevitable that I have moments when my brain seems to crash, much like a computer might. I’m stuck there, waiting for the right word to download or the exact name to be fetched from a dusty file in the recesses of my mind. In those moments, when my brain seems to stop working and my students are all staring at me, I have immediate emotional responses. And I think it’s these emotions that make blanking out such a prevalent fear. I feel shame for not meeting their expectations. I feel embarrassment for not being able to recall quickly enough. I feel worried that my credibility is being diminished. I feel frustrated with myself for the perceived inadequacy. I feel anxious that I won’t know how to move forward. All of these feelings compound the already stressful situation of speaking in public.
Brain blank outs are most commonly associated with stress. Research suggests that when we are under stress (say, for instance, while giving a presentation), our brains make it harder for us to recall factual information while simultaneously highlighting our emotions. In her article on Pysch Central, Christy Matta puts it this way, “So when you’re under stress — like when you’ve forgotten that important work document and your boss makes a comment that causes you to turn to jelly inside — keep in mind that your brain is wired to highlight the emotional part of her message. The factual part of the message may be lost altogether, which can leave you both intensely emotional and failing to act on important facts.”
What To Do When It Does
So it is natural for our brains to have lapses in recall from time to time. And when we are under stress, we can expect those lapses to occur more frequently. Some of the things that help with brain blank outs are preventative measures and some are strategies to use in the moment. While we can’t completely avoid blanking out, we can use the following tips to minimize and handle them.
- Pay Attention to Your Health. Your patterns of self-care are connected to your brain function. Your brain will be at its best when you are getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, hydrating, and maintaining regular exercise.
- Intentionally Use White Space. Juliet Funt is an author and researcher who reminds us that we should intentionally add what she calls “white space” to our schedules. White space is made up of “strategic rests and pauses between our busy-ness that give us a chance to reflect and think critically about our work and ourselves.” Giving our brains a chance to rest is critical.
- Prepare and Practice. You’ll go into the presentation with less stress and more confidence if you’ve put in adequate preparation. You need to fully perform your presentation multiple times before you get up in front of an audience.
- Use Notes. If you find that you have brain blanks when you speak, you should use good speaker’s notes. While you may not need to hold them or refer to them often, just having them there can reduce your stress and give you confidence. However, make sure your notes are ones that really help you. Pages and pages of a word-for-word script probably won’t help. If you need to find something quickly, it might actually be more stressful. Instead, use limited notes meant only for jogging your mind if you get lost. Consider using pictures and colors and formatting clues like bold and caps and bullets to help you quickly locate the information you need.
- Be Honest. It’s usually obvious when a speaker has lost his train of thought. Trying to play it off can actually call more attention to it. Instead of covering it up, use honesty as a path forward. You might say something like, “I’m struggling to find the exact right word here, can anyone help me?” This will involve the audience and might also foster identification and warmth, which are important qualities for speakers to portray.
- Rewind Just a Bit. Sometimes you can jump start your brain again by going back just a little bit. Try repeating or rephrasing what you just said. It will buy you time to think of what you were going to say next and will help you get back on track.
No one can function at 100% capacity 100% of the time. So cut yourself a little slack. Brain blanks happen. But they aren’t the end of the world. Now you know some preventative measures to take and some ways to address them if you happen to blank out the next time you are presenting.
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