Going blank is one of the classic public-speaking nightmares. Fear of it is responsible not only for a lot of anxiety on the part of speakers but also for some awful solutions (such as reading a script). Prevention is certainly better than cure, so let’s look first at how to avoid your mind going blank while you’re making a speech or presentation.
How to prevent your mind going blank
The first step is to create your talk in a way it will be easy to deliver (see How to Write a Speech and How to Write a Presentation on my website).
Once you’ve got your talk as you want it, rehearse it until you no longer have to think about finding the words. Depending on the circumstances and the length of your speech or presentation, this may take a long time. Rehearse your whole talk, of course, but pay particular attention to your opening and closing sections.
Really, do NOT skimp on rehearsal! You may be doing OK in your living room but don’t underestimate the difference it makes having 50 pairs of eyes on you. If you’re resisting rehearsal, this indicates you need to keep going: you’re resisting it because it’s still hard work. Keep going and, sooner or later, you will reach a breakthrough, when you suddenly know it’s going to be fine. One feature of that tipping point is that rehearsal no longer feels like such a chore.
Use notes to guide you and keep you on track. Bullet points on discreet cards are a totally different thing from a script and they save a great deal of stress. Public speaking should never be a feat of memory, because that takes up energy you need for connecting with your audience.
The practical preparation will give you a lot of confidence but do also take some time to get into the zone psychologically. Work on staying grounded and reminding yourself you’re in control.
Make sure you’re prepared well in advance of the day, partly because another important element of success is to get enough sleep. I don’t know about you but when I’m tired, I often find my mind goes blank in normal conversation, let alone when I’m presenting.
What to do if your mind goes blank
Do remember four, five, six seconds feels a lot longer to you at the front than it does to the audience. For many reasons, you need to speak slowly and pause between your points anyway, so a slightly extended pause while you gather your thoughts may well pass unnoticed. Stay calm and let the words come to you.
Your notes will prompt you as to what you wanted to say. If how to express it is eluding you, stay calm and simply make that point from first principles. It may not be as smooth as what you’d prepared but you’ll get the point across.
If you’re speaking for more than a minute or two, it’s normal to take a sip of water from time to time, so take advantage of this. The seconds this buys you will probably be enough for you to find the words you’re looking for.
If all else fails, stay calm (this advice recurs for good reason!) and be honest. Tell the audience you’ve lost your thread and play for time until you find your way again. As long as you stay calm, cheerful and confident, no-one is going to mind this; in fact, they’re likely to be admiring you for the brave and competent way you’re handling the glitch.