We’ve all experienced going into a room and completely forgetting what it is we went for — but what if your mind goes blank when you’ve got an audience?
Maybe you’re in the middle of a work presentation and you totally forget what you were going to say next.
Or perhaps you’re at a public speaking event when brain fog descends, making you lose your train of thought when all eyes are on you.
Even if you’re just deep in conversation and then all of a sudden your words seem to trail off as you can’t quite remember your point.
In these instances, gaps in our thinking aren’t just mildly inconvenient, they can be embarrassing as hell.
In this article, we’ll cover the steps you can take if your mind goes blank when you’re public speaking, in a meeting, or having a conversation.
Mind-blanking at the worst time
It’s not like there’s a great time for your mind to seemingly disappear, but there are certainly more crucial times when you could really do with it sticking around.
I was a broadcast journalist for 10 years, so I know how terrifying it can feel to have your mind go blank at precisely the wrong moment.
Despite the fact that I haven’t even done a professional live broadcast in years, I still have recurring anxiety nightmares about it.
I am on air and I can’t find my script or my notes. I’m stuttering and not making any sense as I desperately try to find something to say — frantically look through magazines and newspapers in search of anything to talk about.
Evolution psychologists have suggested that the stress we feel from having to speak in front of others could link back to our primordial roots.
Being at threat from large predators and harsh environments meant we relied on living in social groups to stay alive. So being ostracised was a genuine threat to our survival.
It’s an explanation for why we still feel an underlying fear of being rejected.
If we’re called upon to talk to an audience, one of the most common anxieties that exist is everyone’s attention on you whilst your mind blanks.
But what we’re really scared of is the perceived judgement and rejection that may bring.
What causes your mind to go blank?
Your mind going blank can happen to any of us, even if you’re not an anxious type.
It tends to happen at key moments like during exams, interviews, or giving a speech.
It’s been shown as a scientifically different state to when your mind just wanders — and you just start thinking about something completely different.
The hallmarks are a difficulty in remembering words at the right time and being unable to focus on the task at hand.
So why does it happen?
It’s essentially caused by the evolutionary fight or flight response, which is designed to trigger changes in the body that protect us from immediate danger.
The pre-frontal lobe — which is the part of the brain that organizes memory — is sensitive to anxiety.
Under stress you’re flooded with hormones like cortisol which shuts down the frontal lobe, making it harder to access memories — because when you’re under threat, you haven’t got time to think things through, you need to act.
Sure, the quarterly budget review you are presenting to your colleagues isn’t quite life or death, but the problem is your brain doesn’t know the difference.
10 steps to take when you’re worried about your mind going blank
1) If you’re doing a presentation or giving a speech, don’t try to learn a script word for word
Asking your memory to hold even more information at a time when you are feeling your most nervous is setting you up for a big old brain block.
Even if you manage to recite it perfectly in front of your bathroom mirror at home, it’s going to feel very different in a room full of people.
Not only is reading from a script an awful lot of detail to try and cram into your brain — unless you are a professionally trained actor the chances are you’re going to sound scripted too.
In fact, even if you are a professionally trained actor, it’s still difficult to come off with a natural delivery. I mean, have you seen them reading autocue at the Oscars? Talk about wooden.
As a former newsreader, I know just how hard it can be to deliver a script and still sound like an actual human whilst doing it.
A big part of effective public speaking involves being in the moment and personable, rather than coming across as over-rehearsed and robotic.
Obviously, you do want to rehearse so that you feel confident and prepared.
But instead of writing out exactly what you want to say word for word, use bullet points to help refresh your thoughts.
That way it will spark your memory and keep you on track to cover everything you wanted to say, but how you phrase it will vary and be more spontaneous.
2) Anticipate tricky questions or prepare some talking points
Sometimes we get totally stumped by a difficult question or the pressure of it all, which means we end up leaving out significant details.
It’s worth having a think about any awkward questions that might come your way and jotting down some thoughts on it.
Even if you find the pressure of small talk often leads to your mind going blank at parties, the same applies.
You can think ahead of a few topics of conversation, so you don’t feel at a total loss when you’re face to face with a stranger.
Preparation helps to reduce the anxiety we feel as we’re more confident that we know what to expect — so we don’t view the situation as such a threat anymore.
Get clear in your mind what you most want to get across to your intended audience.
You can deliver an engaging speech or pitch, but your brain fog means you may forget the most important part.
I once had a client who on business calls with potential new clients would deliver plenty of value, but she’d get so totally flustered that by the end she completely forgot to pitch her services.
Especially when you know you’re likely to trip up, it helps to anticipate what is going to throw you so you can be ready for it.
3) Use a logical structure to help keep you in the flow
All good stories should naturally progress from one point to the next.
Having a logical structure to any presentation or speech you are giving will also help to prevent your mind from going blank.
It’s easier for us to remember details when ideas logically flow in an order that makes sense to us. This way, it easily triggers in our mind the next point we want to make.
Check through your bullet points to see whether they develop in an obvious way — each building upon the last.
When practicing, if there are certain places that you tend to lose your place and forget what comes next, see whether you may need to bridge the gap more between the two ideas.
4) Make sure any notes are mind blank friendly
The funny thing about mind-blanking is that it can feel like it comes out of nowhere.
You’re busy chatting away, comfortably in the flow, and then BOOM…nothing.
So that you can bring your mind back as quickly as possible, make sure any notes are clear and well laid out.
You don’t want to forget what you were saying and then look down at a paper full of messy scribbles that seem to all jumbled together from one point to the next.
Use larger than normal handwriting or printed font and leave plenty of space in between to help you find your place again if you do happen to get lost.
5) Be as calm as you can before you start
Because we know that what triggers brain freeze is worry, stress, and anxiety — the calmer you feel the less likely it is to happen.
It’s important to try and relax as much as you can before the event.
I know, easier said than done right?
But the best way to tackle the natural reaction your brain has to a stressful situation is to prevent the anxious response in the first place.
You might already know some methods that work best for you — but listening to calming music, or taking a walk are some simple techniques to try.
Our breathing is one of the most powerful tools for centering ourselves, because of the instant physical reaction it has on the body.
When you’re anxious, your breath tends to become shallow and shorter — so try taking conscious deep, slow breaths — briefly pausing in between.
You might want to learn specific breathing techniques like the 4-7-8 method which is primarily used to combat stress and anxiety.
If you’re curious, breathwork in general really is worth looking into as it has so many benefits like releasing the tension, boosting and focusing energy, and even helping to process emotions.
I often think it’s funny how little attention we give our breathing — compared to our diet for example.
Especially when you think about how much more of an immediate need for breath we have as a fuel for our body.
6) When you forget what you were going to say next, try these tactics to stall for time
Before you start your speech or meeting make sure you have a couple of useful props close at hand.
Take a bottle or glass of water with you and keep it nearby.
That way, whilst you gather your thoughts you can always reach for it and take a few sips. Nobody needs to know the real reason.
Remember that there’s nothing wrong with brief gaps in between speaking. Whilst slight pauses may feel like an eternity to you, they really won’t to others.
Ok, it’s probably going to blow your cover if whilst you pause you stand there mouth open wide, with a bright red face and eyes like a rabbit caught in headlights.
But short pauses don’t have to be uncomfortable for anybody — you or your audience.
If you need a beat or two, you can take time to rearrange your notes as you nod thoughtfully, before finding your place again and continuing — with nobody the wiser that your mind momentarily went blank.
7) Retrace your steps
You know when you can’t remember for the life of you where you put your keys down, even though you know you had them in your hands two minutes ago.
Chances are — after spending some wasted time fruitlessly searching around the room for a while — you decide to mentally retrace your steps.
You try to picture your movements in your mind leading up to this point — in an attempt to spark your memories from before your brain went blank.
This type of mental retracing can also prove effective when speaking too.
By repeating — even briefly — your previous point, it can kickstart your thought process and create the momentum to carry on again.
By reiterating or summing up the last point to your audience, it can also help your mind to find its place.
8) Avoiding rambling
One of the biggest pitfalls, when our mind goes blank, is that we can end up going off on a total tangent.
Even if there is an awkward gap in a conversation, I find myself filling it — and not always in the most appropriate way.
During live reports as a news reporter, hands down rambling was always the biggest trap that I would fall into whenever I forgot what I wanted to say next.
I think it’s because we find any gaps so deafeningly silent that we feel the need to fill them somehow. And in the heat of the moment — any words will do.
But this panicked reaction is not the right track to start going down, as it’s easy to end up just repeating yourself, or not even making that much sense anymore.
If you catch yourself rambling, finish up your sentence and move on.
You may even want to say something like, let’s move on or I’ll come back to that point later.
9) Don’t take it so seriously
So the cheery person that I am, I find it actually helps me more to think “What’s the worst that can happen?”
It might not feel much of comfort at the time but even if your mind does go blank, let’s face it, it’s not the end of the world.
You’re only human, and so are they, so the chances are that whoever is listening is going to understand and forgive your errs.
They’ll also realize that speaking in front of others isn’t easy.
In fact, The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia as it’s also known, affects about 73% of the population.
As crazy as it sounds, some polls even claim it ranks higher than death as our greatest fear in life.
I promise, I’m not trying to make you more nervous, I’m just reminding you that many people will likely empathize with you rather than judge you.
Even if the very worst-case scenario came true, you draw a total blank and you end up feeling humiliated — you’ll get over it.
Trust me, I’m talking from experience as someone who got so tongue-tied reading a bulletin, with literally tens of thousands of people listening, that I actually said: “blablablabla, sorry, let me start again” live on air.
Whilst we’re confessing — I’ve also battled a laughing fit, whilst trying to hold it together as distraught producers looked helplessly on from the operations room.
Were these my finest career moments, admittedly nah.
But really, did it matter that much, also nah.
The truth is all of us have to make mistakes on the way to getting better at anything. We’d much rather those mistakes happen in private, but in some cases, that’s not always possible.
Public speaking is one of those cases.
Keeping a healthy dose of perspective is going to help you shrug off any little hiccups and carry on regardless.
10) Above all else, if you do nothing else, make sure you do this one vitally important thing
Er… Um…You know what, I’m sure I had a tenth point but I’ve totally forgotten what I was going to say. How embarrassing.
Nope, sorry, it’s gone.