What To Do If Your Mind Goes Blank Mid-Presentation

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A few years back, I was invited to do a Pecha Kucha. Now, for those of you who haven’t come across the format before, the concept is simple; 20 slides, displayed for exactly 20 seconds each thanks to an automatic timer. The idea behind the format is that it ensures the speaker is concise, keeps the presentation moving and gets through all of their content. They’re great fun. If you’re not delivering one!

The invitation came shortly after I had become a member of a private community for entrepreneurs. It’s a very exclusive community and the likelihood is you’ll recognise the names of some of the companies that these entrepreneurs have founded. I felt incredibly lucky to be accepted into the group and still to this day, I’m not entirely convinced I belong there. That said, the invitation came after several years of working with a number of them on big stage presentations and in communities like that, recommendations travel fast. So I found myself in a situation where while I was new to the community and I only knew those who had been clients of mine, a lot of them knew exactly who I was. I was the public speaking coach who had helped X and Y with their talks. 

This event was part of a 3-day conference that was happening for the community and one of the organisers had the brainwave that hosting a Pecha Kucha Series for the first evening’s entertainment was a great idea, and I still haven’t forgiven them for this. 

To say expectation inflation was getting the better of me in the lead up to the event was an understatement. My thinking brain made the consequences of getting this wrong crystal clear; I would forever be known amongst these high rollers as the public speaking coach that can’t speak in public. 

Luckily, in my over-analysis I came up with a master plan… or so I thought. What better way to get everyone’s attention than to pretend to forget my words live for the first 20 seconds, and then have “Gotcha” come up as the second slide? In hindsight, this was a stupidly high-risk strategy that my thinking brain had come up with to compensate for the expectation inflation that I hadn’t dealt with properly. I then proceeded to spend the next 3 weeks worrying about how on earth I was going to act that out.

Fast forward to the moment I get introduced on stage. As the applause softens, I hear one of the founders chip in, ‘no pressure!’ as I walk up. Then just as I was about to start, I notice the technician skip the first slide by mistake and proceed straight to the ‘Gotcha’ slide! 

2 seconds of panic later, the slides cut out completely. 

I was left standing up in front of some of the country’s most impressive entrepreneurs with no plan and nowhere to hide. 

On one hand, it was a lucky escape - I do not have the acting capabilities to pull that off! My thinking brain took me way off-piste with that idea. I ended up spending more time holding the floor while the tech was getting fixed than I did delivering the Pecha Kucha itself!

So, what’s the worst thing that you can imagine happening to you whilst you’re presenting?!

It might seem like a counterintuitive question, but it’s one I often ask in my workshops.  

You’d be forgiven for thinking that asking such a question would do more damage than good. We are taught that focusing on the ‘negatives’ is self-defeating or pessimistic, but actually, choosing to confront the things that could go wrong is both courageous and smart.

Some of the most common answers I get back include: What if my mind goes blank, what if the tech stops working, what if I get asked a question that I don't know the answer to?

Whilst these are things we think will be a complete nightmare if they happen the reality is, the people you’re talking to won’t be bothered if you handle them well, regardless of how senior they are.   

Wouldn't it be quite reassuring to know that if something did go wrong, you had a plan to handle it?

So, in answer to the title of this blog, here is a fail-safe way of dealing with being lost for words.

What to do if your mind goes blank mid-presentation

Most likely you have played the role of both the presenter forgetting their words and the audience member watching someone else forget their words at some point in your career and what’s interesting is that it’s almost as uncomfortable watching it as it is being in that situation. 

When it happens as a presenter, you can sense the moment is coming 2 or 3 sentences before it actually happens and when it does, you go silent and the room goes cold. Meanwhile, the audience is silently willing them to remember their line and break the tension but know full well that the longer the silence goes on, the less likely it’s going to arrive.

The first thing you should do is accept that your mind going blank mid-presentation is a matter of when not if.

Done that? Great - that’s one less thing to worry about!

The second thing you should do is acknowledge it: 

“I have completely forgotten where I was going with that…, let me just check my notes… ah that’s right… (continue on with your presentation)!”

Here’s why it works. By not allowing it to become a big deal for you, it doesn't become one for your audience. 

And herein lies the secret to handling all unexpected incidents in real-time…

Make these moments forgettable. 

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3 Public speaking tips a month to help you become a better leader