Blanking during a presentation is the mental equivalent of your clothes falling off in front of the audience. It’s the moment you stop speaking, as does your ability to think. I don’t mean, ‘think clearly’, but actually the ability to think at all.
This is sometimes accompanied by the disturbing sensation of floating out of your skin to watch your ‘other self’ helplessly freeze in front of the audience.
The reasons we blank
Here are the three most common reasons for this brain-jam:
- Awareness of being looked at:
sudden awareness that we’re being watched by countless pairs of eyes, judging performance and personality.
- Trying to remember a script:
the total stress of trying to remember lines, when bullet points acting as ‘landmarks in the road’ would have done fine. Unless you’re a politician or giving police reporting on the progress on a crime, ditch the script. It’s a security blanket.
- Unnatural introductions:
beginning a presentation with your name often feels like the equivalent of opening your coat to reveal a target: ‘you know who I am now, so you know who to hit’.
According to reviews in Scientific American, research has recently discovered that stress impacts on the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex aids short-term memory, concentration on the task in hand and choosing appropriate actions. It’s the command centre of the brain.
Under stress, the captain of the command centre can misread a situation as one of danger, triggering the hypothalamus, the primitive part of the brain. The hypothalamus will, in response, release adrenalin causing a ‘fight or flight’ response.
This isn’t very useful if your audience want to understand how the new IT change programme is going to support the company strategy.
How to deal with ‘blanking’
I’ve read ‘Tell yourself you’re fab/the audience loves you/your presentation is amazing”, and other such nonsense. Well, I’ve had stage fright and I can tell you this: you can’t tell yourself anything because that part of the brain is out for lunch, given up, shut down. Dog gawn.
Gesture to draw out words from your head – something will occur to you until you find the next point.
- Move your feet:
Move from one position to another. If you move you’ll breathe, and this will clear the thought process, buy you time and make you look more confident. As this action usually builds in a natural pause, it will add presence and control, even as your mind is flipping like a Roladex.
- Mentally shift:
Do what you do when you lose your house keys: retrace your steps. Recap what you said when the pre-frontal cortex was in control and it will lead you to pinpoint what to say next. You can do this aloud: the audience will often help you! As it happens to everyone, it actually helps you to become more engaging. (Please note, however, I’m not encouraging you to make a habit of this. There are other ways to be engaging!).
Now, when you look at the reasons for blanking, such as scripting, there are many ways to avoid it in the first place.
Using theatre improvisation techniques is essential for confident presenting: very little will phase you as the command centre of the pre-frontal brain will always be in control, increasingly unphased by the unexpected. It won’t go AWOL: you can avoid brain-jams and out of body experiences.
The habit of risk taking in this way, breeds a sense of calm and trust that won’t be read as a disaster situation but as an opportunity to make your point and let your personality shine through freely.