What to do when you go blank during a public speaking engagement

From Medium:

Ever faced the dreaded combination of stage fright and an unexpected challenge?
Well, I have, and let me tell you, it involved a sneeze attack and a surprise speech.
As the head girl of my high school, I thought public speaking was a breeze – until one day in 9th grade.

The Speech Ambush:

Just the day before a school assembly, I was handed a speech to memorize. Simple, right? Not when you’re battling a sudden dust allergy.
Cue uncontrollable sneezing – not the ideal prep for a speech. I popped anti-allergy pills like candy, but my nose had other plans.
It turned into a warm waterfall, and reading the speech made it worse. I became a master at reading through a runny nose.

Sleepless Night Drama:

Mugging up a speech was never my cup of tea, especially with a leaky nose. Despite high-dose medication, sleep eluded me.As the dawn approached, an exhaustion set in. Sleep-deprived, sniffly, and with puffy eyes, I had a choice, give the speech or face the wrath of my teachers. Duty called, and so did my need for sleep.

On Stage:

Mic in hand, half-asleep, I began with confidence. But halfway through, I blanked out. Panic? Yes. The audience staring? Definitely. What did I do? I confessed. “None of this was my idea; blame the internet!”as I confidently said,further continuing the speech I deviated from the script, shared my perspective on Women’s Day, and finished the speech my way. Applause ensued.

. . . .

Our political science teacher came to my rescue, my unexpected hero, praising my brilliance. As they argued, I made a swift exit, vowing never to memorize a speech again.

Link to the rest at Medium

PG has given quite a number of speeches of various types.

  • In college, he had many classes which required him to interpret various types of literature, including everything from folk tales to Shakespeare to lengthy poems by Vachel Lindsay.
  • He has spoken to quite a number of judges and juries, attempting to further the cause of clients admirable and disreputable.
  • He has delivered more than a few church sermons.
  • He has spoken to groups fellow attorneys from Hawaii to Beverly Hills to Chicago to Manhattan to London about how to use technology to improve the management and operations of their offices.

Allow PG to make a few suggestions about dealing with the unexpected when giving a speech:

  • Don’t memorize if you can get around doing so by hook or by crook.
  • If you have to memorize, slip a copy of what you’re supposed to memorize into a pocket or some other easy-to-reach place on your person, so you can refresh your recollection or read a bit until your memory kicks into gear.
  • An outline of your presentation is a much better idea than having a verbatim written speech. This gives you the option to let bright thoughts to pop up off your head or, if you will be speaking following other speakers, comment on some of the things they have said.
  • If you have the option of using a PowerPoint for your speech (with a large monitor or projector so your audience can properly view it), your PowerPoint can substitute for an outline. Please don’t read from your PowerPoint, however. You can sometimes use a printed version of a PowerPoint as an outline of your presentation.

If you are not familiar with Vachel Lindsay’s poetry, he was a popular performer of some of his best-known works in the late 19th and early 20th centures. Below, you’ll hear him recite (perform is a better description) his most famous epic poem, The Congo.

PG warns one and all that Lindsay, who died in 1931, reflected the times during which he lived in his attitudes and writing about African-Americans.

Skip the performance if exceedingly out of date and offensive attitudes towards descendants of African slaves may offend or upset you.

6 thoughts on “What to do when you go blank during a public speaking engagement”

  1. I would add a tip that if it is an emotional speech, it is highly worthwhile to go through it more than once highlighting areas where your emotions overwhelm your oration. When I was a young lad of ’28, I thought I could get through my father’s eulogy with a once-through beforehand, practicing with my SIL. It was NOT enough. I cried through the real version to the point where I was almost incomprehensible to many.

    At the age of 45, I did my mother’s eulogy (don’t ask, my family SUCKS at sharing mental loads hehehe). I practiced about 10 times and each time that I cracked, I highlighted the section and went back about two words, and put a symbol to pause and breathe. I made it through with only a minor moment of my oration being overwhelmed. My speech content wasn’t as good, but my delivery was more controlled.

    Oh, and one other tip goes to the option of using an outline. You also need to know if you’re the type to ad lib and add examples, details, etc. as you go aka digress or you’ll stick to your outline. I do a LOT of presentations for work, and there is one area that I present on a lot. It’s informal, like coaching, and like a stand up comedian, I can do a 5 minute set, 15 minutes, 60 minutes, or 3 hours. All from the same outline. So if I’m using a presentation, I know that a slide might have me jump off to 5 examples, which might be 10m. If I only have 60 for the presentation, I know I can’t do more than 5 slides. Other people doing the same topic will stick to the slides and be done in 10-15 in total. If I only have 5, it’s 3 bullets tops. If I have 15, I can do an intro and summary slide. Or 6 bullets if I’m going from memory.

    To me, it’s more about knowing yourself than knowing the material.

    • A HUGE amount of that facility is practice:
      – Before, with friends
      – In front of Hostile audiences (the first time, you’ll likely break down or cry)
      – When you’re under the weather or otherwise not at your best
      – When you have to go off-script
      – And when you have a great group in front of you (this can be the most jarring – it can throw you)
      I took a class in Speech and Drama in my senior year. I needed an easy credit, which this was rumored to be.
      It wasn’t – I was a shy person, quite introverted, and found my first speeches to be AGONY. I almost wet myself in fear.
      But, I got through the first speech.
      No experience was worse – although, a few came close.
      The second half of the class was Drama. MUCH more fun, as I could hide behind the character I was playing.
      But it’s a class that EVERY student should have at some point in their education. After that experience, I was, if not fearless, at least reasonably confident I wouldn’t die.
      If you don’t have that opportunity, try substitute teaching – do NOT do middle school or ‘challenging’ classes for your first month or two.
      Someone in a business meeting asked me how I managed to be so unruffled when speaking off the cuff. I told him I’d taught middle school, in a tough urban classroom. Once I’d done that, EVERYTHING was easier.
      Funnily, I’m confident in front of class-sized to auditorium-sized groups. However, I’m still timid in small groups of strangers, particularly parties and such.
      Practice is the key.

  2. I’ll add some to PG’s great tips.

    1. Learn one great method. simonsinek.com The Art of Presentation is a great one.
    2. Use The TedTalk method of diving right into the point.
    3. If the venue says they want it in 20 to 25 minutes, make sure it is 22 to 23.
    4. Practice several times until you can do it from memory in the allotted time.

    If you do this, you won’t go blank and will have delivered a substantive talk.

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