What to Do When You Blank Out During a Speech

  • SumoMe

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?



One thought on “What to Do When You Blank Out During a Speech

  1. Oh, have I had a blank out! I was getting sick at the time of my speech (I stayed home from school for 4 days after!) and I was tired and worn out, and I got up to give my speech and couldn’t even remember the topic. I just stood there for 3 minutes (I eventually figured out what my topic was after about 10 seconds) babbling. It was awful. I know this probably isn’t very encouraging for anyone, but I can tell you I’m still alive and relatively unscathed after the experience…

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