What to Do When You Blank Out During a Speech

Two-hundred pairs of eyeballs were on me.  I had just delivered a dramatic, beautifully wordsmithed phrase in my contest speech.  Then my mind went blank.  I looked at the audience with the “deer-in-the-headlights” stare for what seemed like an eternity as my mind frantically groped for the next phrase.

Has that ever happened to you?  Or, maybe you are afraid it will?

The dreaded blank out.  It can happen if you haven’t prepared adequately, but it can also happen if you have been diligent in your preparation.  There are some memorization techniques that you can use to reduce the likelihood of blank outs, but having a recovery plan can greatly reduce your anxiety, and you may be able to recover without your audience even realizing you had a memory lapse. After all, they don’t know what you are going to say next, so if you change it up a bit, they will probably think you planned it that way.

1. Pause.  Pause for a couple of beats, maintaining eye contact with a single person.  The pause may give you the time to remember.  Looking at one person (versus scanning) can be calming.

2. Rewind. Repeat the last sentence or phrase.  This gives your mind both time to think and a little “restart” jolt.

3. Fast Forward.  Jump ahead to content that you do remember.  At some point in your speech you may remember what you were going to say earlier.  You can work it in and may even prefer the new arrangement.

4. Take a sip of water.  You will look in control and not rushed.  Of course, your mind will be racing . . .

5. Check your notes.  Hopefully you have just a few key words in a large font, so that your panic won’t intensify as you scan your notes.

6. Go to the next slide.  If you are using PowerPoint, you can use it as a teleprompter (although I don’t generally recommend this practice!).

7. Smile. Smile like you have a secret and just look at the audience for a while.  You will look very confident and the audience will be anticipating your next phrase almost as much as you are.

8. Have back-up content.  Have a short, relevant anecdote or a back-up activity (a good idea anyway, to allow for flexible timing).  Then, if you still can’t remember, you can ask something like, “Now, where was I?” at the end of the story or activity.

9. Get the audience involved.   Go for a short Q&A session. Have them pair up to discuss an important point or to do an activity.

10. Make fun of your memory lapse and build rapport.  “I have completely blanked out.” (laugh).  Has that ever happened to you? . . . My grandson says I have ‘old-timers’ disease. Now where was I?

11. Have a recovery plan.  Proactively practice a recovery plan for your particular type of presentation (notes, no notes, PowerPoint).

Sample “Blank Out” Recovery Plan for a speech with notes:

  • Step 1. Stop Talking
  • Step 2. Pause/Get sip of water
  • Step 3. Scan notes for next thought
  • Step 4. Decide on what you will say next
  • Step 5. Look up and make eye contact
  • Step 6. Start talking

I wish I had proactively thought about what to do when my mind went blank before that contest speech a few years back.  I managed to stammer on, but I never regained my flow after that stumble.  On the positive side, I learned from that experience and you are the beneficiary!

Do you have other techniques to deal with “blank-out” syndrome?



How to Self-Evaluate Your Speech

Do you want to greatly improve your presentations?

I could just say, “hire me,” but you can improve your presentations all on your own, too.  You can self-evaluate.

A good self-evaluation is a journey of awareness.  A great self-evaluation is one that starts with preparation and planning well before you give your speech.

To prepare you need to have the equipment to record.  You can buy an inexpensive video recorder and a tripod or buy just a voice recorder.  Most phones have a recording feature (video and/or audio).  If you want to be unobtrusive in your recording, just do the audio.

Additionally, plan one or two specific goals for speaker improvement that you will work on during the speech.  Record and evaluate yourself practicing.  Record your live presentation and evaluate that, too.

Watch or listen to yourself at least once, but 3 times or 4 times will allow you to evaluate at a deeper level.

Speech Self-Evaluation Checklist

1st viewing/listening: The first time is partly to recover from the shock of hearing or seeing yourself!

__overall effect,

__audience response

__anything that particularly stands out, positive or negative.

__How did you do on the one or two specific goals you had set?

__Did your speech fit the audience and context of the event?  (e.g.  speeches to teenagers in a high school classroom would typically emphasize different things, and be delivered differently than speeches to senior citizens on a cruise ship)

2nd listening: The second time just listen (turn off the visual), focusing on content, making an outline as you listen:

__Did you get the audience’s attention at the start?  And, was your “attention-getter” relevant to the topic?

__Did your introduction clearly give your audience both a reason to listen, and a clear direction (a clear thesis)?

__Could you outline your own speech (was the organization easy to follow)?

__Did you support your points with examples, stories, statistics, metaphors, analogies?

__Did the transitions maintain flow?

__Did you ramble?

__During the speech did you connect with head (logic), heart (emotion), hand (action) and leave your audience with something to think, feel or do?

__Did you end powerfully?  Did you call back your key points?  Did your ending provide a feeling of closure? Did you have a call to action?

3rd listening: The third time, again just listen, focusing on voice (turn off the visual):

__Did you vary your vocal pace, pitch and volume in a way that enforced your message and kept it engaging?

__Do you need to project more?

__How was your use of language?
__Appropriate to audience?
__No jargon or slang that the audience wouldn’t relate to
__Good enunciation and correct pronunciation and grammar
__Little to no filler words (use of Ahs, Ums)
__Did you use rhetorical devices (e.g. simile, contrast, rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, rule of 3)

__Did you pause long enough after important points or rhetorical questions or after you said something funny (did you let people have the time to laugh or did you “step-on” the laughs)?

4th viewing: The fourth time, If you have video, watch the video again, leaving on the audio, but focusing on the visual:

__How was your eye contact?

__Did you speak from memorable key words or did you look down at wordy notes too much?

__Did you use sustained eye contact for entire thoughts? Or, did you flit or scan?

__Did your facial expressions, body language (stance, movement) and gestures distract from or enforce the message?

__Did your gestures look natural?

__Was your attire appropriate?  Video, especially, makes you reconsider busy prints!

__ Did you move on purpose mostly (or was there noticeable pacing, rocking, hand-wringing, etc.)?

__If you used visual aids, were they easy to see and integrated smoothly?

A wrap up question:

If you had the opportunity to deliver this speech again next week, what are the top 1-3 changes that you would make?

Self-evaluation and recordings can also be shared with another speaking professional or a presentation coach.

Self-evaluate for more powerful presentations!

How to Write a Speech in 5 Minutes

Write a Speech in 5 minutesYou show up at an event and the organizer asks you to “say a few words” later in the program. That happened to me last month–in front of a few hundred people.

You arrive at your Toastmaster meeting and a speaker didn’t show up, so the Toastmaster asks if you would like to take the “opportunity” to speak.  Yep.  Been there.

You show up at your surprise birthday party and realize people might expect you to say something.  Guess who turned 50 last month?

How do you feel when asked to speak on short notice?

Probably not too excited.  Probably a little (or a lot) afraid.  Turn your fear into purposeful energy and use this opportunity to make a difference!

Here’s a 5-Step process to prepare a speech in 5 minutes:

Step 1:  THINK about your PURPOSE

  • Why you?  Why would you be the person to talk about this?   If you haven’t been given a topic, try using the following topic prompts:
    • Event-related–if there is a general theme
    • Recent events—news items or even something that just happened earlier in the meeting
    • Lessons learned from the past—pick a person, like your grandmother, to illustrate “lessons learned.”
    • One of your passions or values in life—as it would relate to the audience.
    • An analogy.  At my surprise birthday party, I started out “I feel a little like George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life . . .”
  • Why this audience?  Why would the audience want to hear what you have to say?
  • What outcome? What do you want your audience to think, feel or do after you are done?

Write down your main message in one sentence.  Everything you say must relate to your main message.

Step 2:  BRAINSTORM. Give yourself a minute to brainstorm.  Do you have one story that can provide the overarching framework? That’s my favorite approach to short-notice speeches.   Start your speech with the exciting “conflict” part of the story, but leave the audience hanging.  Then, in the body, make story-related, audience-relevant points.  Finally, use the ending of the story as your conclusion.  You have given your audience a nicely wrapped, memorable package.

The story framework may not work in all situations, so consider other frameworks, such as:

  • Problem-cause-solution
  • First-second-third . . .
  • Then . . . now . . . tomorrow.
  • Location 1 . . . Location 2 . . . Location 3

Step 3:  KEY POINTS. Come up with 1- 3 points and key supports.   If you have a very short “say a few words” of less than 1-2 minutes, you can just make one point.  For a longer speech, use 3 points.   People can easily remember 3 points.  Each point should have at least one support:  a story, an example, relevant statistics. Write your points and supports in bullet format in the middle of your page, leaving room for introduction and conclusion.

Step 4:  INTRODUCTION. Jot down an idea for an attention-getting opening:  a question, a story, a startling statistic, a quote.  If you have time to look up quotes by topic (http://www.brainyquote.com/), you can sound quite impressive using a relevant quote at the beginning or end of your speech.

Step 5:  CONCLUSION.  Your conclusion is what people will remember most.  You will want to call back your key points and end with a call-to-action or an inspirational thought.  Don’t add any new points in your conclusion.

At the very least, mentally go through your introduction and conclusion several times so that you can deliver them with power.  If you have time to practice, like in the car on the way to a meeting, do so out loud to build fluency and confidence.

So, the next time someone asks you to speak on short notice, be daring and dazzle them!

Master the Metaphor

SCREAM Metaphor Anchor

“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” –Aristotle

Metaphor is the last rhetorical device in the acronym SCREAM (Simile, Contrast, Rhyme, Echo, Alliteration, and Metaphor).  Metaphor is the comparison of two UNLIKE things without using the word “like” as in a simile.  In  a previous post, I briefly explained the difference between similes and metaphors.  A metaphor is a substitution.  With a metaphor you say that one thing is another thing, as in  “Jack is a pig.”  Of course, Jack is not literally a pig; he just acts like one–greedy, dirty or gross*.

Metaphors usually link something that is tangible that we can physically sense (see, touch, hear, smell or taste) with an intangible concept. A metaphor can be a powerful shortcut to meaning, helping people see something in a new way.  Metaphors and the other figures of speech in SCREAM will anchor your points in your listeners’ minds.  (Note the use of “anchor” as a metaphor).

Steps to Creating Your Own Metaphors

1. Decide on the mood you want to convey, but don’t be too specific just yet.  Pick a basic emotion:
Anger, fear, disgust, contempt, joy, sadness, surprise

2. Ask yourself, does this remind me of something from my childhood? Another experience? Is there some outstanding characteristic?  Jot down whatever comes to mind.

3. Within the “mood” constraints, brainstorm by asking yourself 5-sense questions to make a concept more concrete.  Go for quantity over quality at this point:
a. What does it look like? (Visual impact is paramount in presentations.  Go for greatest quantity here.  You want VIVID images).
b. What does it sound like?
c. What does it feel like?
d. What does it taste like?
e. What does it smell like?

4. Draw it out.  If finding a metaphor is difficult, try drawing pictures to loosen up your creativity.

5. Remove “like” or “as” to switch from a simile to a metaphor.  Does it have more power without the like or as?  (Compare “you are like my sunshine” to “You are my sunshine.”)

6.  Say it out loud.  Say the possible metaphors out loud to hear how they sound.  What looks good on paper doesn’t always sound good.

An example:

Next month, I will be presenting “Networking for Effective Engagement” at the Minnesota School Nutrition Association Conference.   I’d like to come up with a metaphor for “walking into a room full of strangers.”
Here’s my attempt at going through the first 4 steps:

1. Basic Emotion:  Fear
2. Memories:  First day of kindergarten, going to husband’s office party
3. Sense questions:
a. What does it look like? A Chinese buffet with lots of strange foods.  Or, a school cafeteria with lots of selections and limited time.
b. What does it sound like? Rumble of an approaching storm
c. What does it feel like?  New clothes on the first day of school (uncomfortable, unfamiliar, but good-looking)
d. What does it taste like?  Kimchi, the first time I ate it.  Vitamins—not the kiddie ones.
e. What does it smell like?  Kimchi. . . (I now like Kimchi, Korean spicy, fermented cabbage, but it really has a strong odor.)
4. Draw it out—When I drew out a simple representation of people at a networking event, I made circles and it reminded me of “connect the dots.”  So, a networking event is a huge connect-the-dot activity, but with strangers, you don’t know where to start or what connections to make.

I’d probably have to spend more than the five minutes I just spent to come up with some better ones, but now that I’m thinking about it, my mind will be open to ideas.   Got a good one?  I’d love to hear from you.
Add metaphors to your speaking tool kit and tap into your listeners’ minds!

*Pigs, unfortunately, have a bad reputation.