He lurks in the shadows of your mind but never shows his face when you’re relaxed. Still you know he’s there, hiding, biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.
At times when confidence is high, you wonder whether he exists at all; maybe he’s just a figment of your imagination.
But then the big day comes, they hand you the mic, and you sense his ominous presence approaching, ready for the big reveal. The moment arrives. You’re center stage. The audience is pregnant with anticipation and it’s time to speak… and that’s exactly when he strikes. His dirty fingers clasp around your throat , turning your mouth dry and choking off your voice. Then with his hypnotic stare, he wipes your mind clean, emptying it of all words and thoughts and ideas, leaving you flustered and jibbering with nothing but a blank brain where your mind used to be.
The Blank Brain Boogeyman is real, and he’s coming to a speech near you.
Coming a close second to the fear of public speaking, the problem of forgetting what you want to say, was the most common challenge identified by people completing mypublic speaking survey. Theories abound about the causes, but there is no denying its existence and impact. It affects everyone and anyone.
My first sentence on my first day as a barrister (many moons ago) went something like this “Yes, your honour, I appear to represent… Mr… I mean Mrs….no, Miss….erm…. (sweat starts to pour) … that is…. I appear for…. Mr… erm… my client!”
Didn’t matter that I had fully prepared my case and written my client’s name in big bold letters on the front of my brief. In that split second between opening my mouth and actually trying to speak, all the words of my planned speech simply vanished into thin air. (Lucky for me, I had a kind judge).
Fortunately, like pretty much every other aspect of public speaking, the blank brain phenomenon whilst common to everyone, is eminently beatable by anyone, if you know the process.
So here are 3 Rules and 1 simple technique to try that should help you keep the Blank Brain Boogeyman where he belongs – as an urban myth.
First the Rules:
Rule #1 – Internalise. Don’t Memorise
Memorising your speech is a bad idea for many reasons. Firstly, it’s actually pretty tough to do even for the shortest speech. You’re bound to make a mistake, which will either throw you or lose the audience. More importantly, once you commit that speech to memory, it then becomes almost impossible to be flexible and change or adapt to suit the moment.
Instead of memorising, your aim should be to internalise and become deeply familiar with your speech, so that you know it intimately without needing to remember every word.
Since your audience will forget 90% of what you say within just a few hours anyway, your focus should be on the overall message you want to convey, rather than the specific words & phrases you will use to convey that message.
Rule #2 – Tell a story
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know by now that I believe in stories. The reason is simple. Stories are easy to remember, and audiences love to listen to them. It’s a simple win/win. So, whenever and wherever you can, encapsulate your message in a great story and you’ll find the words flowing effortlessly.
Rule #3 – Rehearse & Repeat
Unsurprisingly, a key element of not forgetting what you’re going to say is to practise. But avoid the mistake that most people make, which is to do a quick practice shortly before the speech. At best this will only lodge the speech in your short term memory, which is notoriously fickle.
Instead, your aim should be to rehearse, repeat, rehearse, repeat over an extended period of time.
Try recording what you’re going to say to camera, then watch your performance a few times. Leave it for 24 hours, then come back and practise some more. Rinse and repeat as often as you can.
Structured and repeated rehearsal will increase your familiarity with the subject, and move the speech out of your fickle short term memory, into your longer term and more reliable memory banks. By the time you come to deliver your speech, you’ll be so familiar with it, you’ll even feel secure enough to improvise.
The Journey Technique
Now you’ve got the Rules, here’s the technique.
Like all new skills, it takes some practice, but once understood it is highly effective (and used by many of the greatest speakers, including stand up comedians – ever wondered how they can deliver an hour long set without using a single note?)
1) Pick a journey that is highly familiar to you, perhaps because you take it every day e.g. your journey to work; the school run; your jogging route.
2) Then choose specific points along that journey that you will use to trigger your memory of the different elements of your speech: opening your front door; going through the tube turnstile; sitting in the first compartment; your coffee, biscuits and sugar at work; turning on your desktop computer etc. It can even just be the steps you take within your house to get ready in the morning e.g. putting on your slippers, shower, brush your teeth, put on your clothes, breakfast etc.
3) With your triggers in place, choose specific points in the speech (that you are now very familiar with following the 3 Rules) and assign them to each trigger. So, if you were giving a business presentation, it could be:
- opening your front door – introduce myself
- going through the tube turnstile – set out the problem
- sitting in the first compartment – lay out the big idea that might seem uncomfortable
- your coffee, biscuit and sugar – the 3 steps of your proposed solution
- turning on your desktop – your conclusion
To really cement things in your brain, try assigning a striking or memorable image or idea to each trigger. So:
- opening your front door (and the postman said hello) – introduce myself
- going through the tube turnstile (delay announcement) set out the problem
- sitting in the first compartment (huge sweaty guy sits next to me) – lay out the big idea that might seem uncomfortable
- your coffee, biscuit and sugar (very sweet) outline the 3 steps of your proposed solution that will solve the problems
- turning on your desktop (bright screen) – the bright conclusion
The aim is to have as many triggers as you need (without going overboard) to help you get through your speech. And if you combine this with meaningful rehearsal, you’ll soon find your speech firmly embedded in your brain, and be able to recall it when the moment comes, and probably for some time after that.
And one final suggestion. Good idea to have a go to comment you can use just in case your words do fail you even after all your efforts. I like this one (though I have no idea where I first heard it)
before I got up to speak, only God and I knew what I was going to say. Now only God knows.
Good luck! God’s speed!