Afraid of “Blanking Out” When Speaking Publicly? Three Tips for Recovery and the Silver Linings They Bring

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In my thirty years of representing and coaching public speakers at all levels I’ve seen few actually “blank out.”  Five, to be precise.  That’s five people out of approximately five thousand.  It’s rare and therefore highly unlikely you will “blank out” at the podium.  Think about it.  You’re asked to give a talk, deliver a speech, present on a panel, teach a class or facilitate a workshop because you are an expert on the subject matter.  And you’re anxious about messing up so you prepare your content meticulously and practice your delivery not until you get it right, but until you can’t get it wrong.  You own it.  Yet, you fear “blanking out.”  Take comfort in knowing that the pause you come to in your delivery before the audience is just you temporarily losing your train of thought.  And for that, I recommend three remedies that not only work to reroute you back to your message, but arm you with confidence, boost your rapport with your audience and enhance your reputation as an expert who is sophisticated yet approachable,  humble and larger than any one glitch.

Humor works well with formal addresses before audiences of over one hundred. Recently I saw Theresa Caputo – the Long Island Medium – live before an audience of 3000.  Before she began channeling, she gave a twenty-minute speech to orient the audience and introduce herself.  At one point, she paused and exclaimed, “I forgot what I was going say.”  And then she immediately followed that up with a smile and in a bellowing voice declared, “You think it’s tough talking to dead people; try giving a speech to thousands of the living!”  The audience roared with applause and by the time it ebbed she was back on track and, it seemed, more beloved for her humility and humorous handling of her own faux pas.  Tip #1  Prepare a humorous comment in advance of your talk – just in case.

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Asking the audience for help is thrice nice.  In hours-long classes, small workshops and all-day seminars in which I take questions as they arise, I sometimes lose my place.  Simply asking the audience, “Where were we?” – while scratching my head and saying “Yikes!” for emphasis – invites students and program participants to contribute and help me out.  That not only gets me back to my prepared remarks but also reignites a feel-good synergy between us.  People like to be helpful and when someone can help a speaker gone silent, it engenders compassion and dispels the awkwardness we experience when a speaker struggles alone in the spotlight.  As a practical matter, it also prompts the group to revisit their notes and that review of the material is reinforcing of my message.  All in all, it’s a win-win-win.  Tip #2  Practice asking sincerely for the assistance you need to get back on track – just in case.

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Quoting someone of renown goes a long way in reminding ourselves and the audience that speaking before a group is a stressful endeavor for any human being – even the highly educated, empirically successful and very experienced.  When preparing to address mature audiences, I practice saying with a wide smile “I am thinking now of Roscoe Drummond who said, ‘The mind is a wonderful thing.  It starts working the minute your born and never stops until you get up to speak in public.’  Take a deep breath with me, will you, as I retrieve my mind from its coffee break!”  Be mindful of those who paved the way in this medium – from Aristotle to Mark Twain to Tony Robbins –  their perspectives on stumbles put ours in very good company.  Tip #3  Borrow the eloquence, wit and stature of one who resonates with your audience and call them in as a life line by quoting them.  Have handy that apt quotation – just in case.

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Remember, prepared speakers can’t hide their preparation.  Audiences sense it and know when a presenter has selected content with care and skill and when a speaker has practiced for a smooth delivery – even if a hiccup sneaks in.  And, at the end of the day, you are boldly doing what 80% of people report is their number one fear in life.  That brings you support and respect.  Rather than magnify an “imperfection” in your delivery by melting down or apologizing or leaving the stage, let it work for you and for your audience.  Graciously and skillfully turn it into an opportunity for a show of humor, humility or the words of the titans who have generously shared both with us.

Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels and as keynoters since 1988. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college courses on oral communication.  She is President of Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a speakers bureau that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at LisaBernard@SecuritySpeak.net and follow her firm at www.Facebook.com/PodiumTime.

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Social Media and Communication Infantilization?

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I love infants.  When my friends with small children post photos on Facebook I giggle and hit the heart button.  And when I see babies in person I can’t help but interact with them.  I make faces to elicit reactions and I am amazed that they understand gestures and language.  If they’re nine or ten months old I ask them, “Where’s mommy?” and they point to their mother.   It’s a marvel that their feelings and knowledge are expressed without words and it is remarkable that we adults interpret them accurately and respond accordingly.  At their first cry after naptime we ask “Are you hungry?”  And as we approach them with a bowl, bottle or breast they reach to us – eyes wide and hands outstretched.

Late in 2017, I made an observation that gave me pause:  On some social media platforms, my feelings and reactions are expressed as though I am an infant – that is, with pictoral facial expressions to symbolize what I “like” or “love” or what makes me feel “sad,”  “happy,” “angry” or “shocked.”  Don’t get me wrong, it works for some media and in some situations.  A smiley face is sufficient for expressing that you’re genuinely glad your buddy’s power returned after a storm.  Enough clicked.  As an adult, however, it isn’t enough to “make a face” in most situations and relationships.  And as social media offer alternatives to face-to-face communication and live social and professional engagement, some possibilities and concerns are worth noting.  Are we becoming accustomed to “reacting” rather than “interacting” and “responding?”

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With my students, I’ve noticed a shift over the last two years.  Among those raised in societies such as the U.S. with ready access to the internet and social media, more seem to be “spectators” than “participants” than in earlier generations.  They “watch” my lectures and interactions with other students and are uninclined to participate – to exchange their ideas and feelings beyond, “I like it.”  Or, “it’s good.”  They may smile and nod their heads, but they hang back from the articulation of their assessments even after encouragement from me and prodding from their peers.  I cannot help but wonder why this is happening.  Sometimes I have a sense that I am the first live authority figure to press them to articulate clearly their thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes they don’t have the vocabulary to express the nuances of their sentiments and impressions.  Many confess that they don’t read – for school, to keep up with current events or for pleasure.  That certainly can stunt a vocabulary and limit one’s conversance on an issue.  Together, they’ll zap an undergraduate’s confidence and the development of original ideas.

Lately though, seeing many coeds go immediately to their phones and tablets during break and as class ends,  I wonder how long they’ve been voluntary and friendly hostages to social media platforms – platforms that may be conditioning them to be passive in their learning and to “react.”  You know this drill; view a post and be cued: “Like and share if you agree.”  That’s social media-speak for “pass along someone else’s viewpoint” – an anemic substitute for individual expression.  And “reacting” flies in the face of  Effective Communication 101:  Don’t react – respond.  A reaction is an uncensored, involuntary and immediate emotional release.   A response is a judicious decision about when and how to behave and speak.  Children react.  Adults respond.

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Marry that to the trend in my undergraduates away from primary source research – that is, the avoidance of face-to-face interviews and in-person visits when investigating speech topics.  These missing pieces in their due diligence put them in a one-down position from the get-go compared to their contemporaries who actually have a probe, look, smell, taste or listen for themselves.  Reliance on social media outlets for information puts a wall between students and the gold mine of empirical research.  Increasingly I find myself saying, “Let’s get out of our chairs and from behind our tablets,” to some blank stares.  For them, it might as well be an online course with a student to instructor ratio of 1000:1.

What’s the dynamic at work here?   It seems that while communication technologies continue to evolve, human nature hasn’t changed a stitch.  We muggles are attracted to appliances that make things easier for us and social media platforms and mobile devices square with our appetites for simplicity and accessibility.   Yet – and here’s the root of the paradox – we humans also long to express ourselves as individuals.  We crave being heard and understood by others.   And we aspire to feel confidant when we speak with and in front of other people.  Reality check: only actual live face-to-live face interaction satisfies these needs over time.

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Nonverbal cues like nodding, a pat on the back and eye contact impact us synergistically.  And verbal clarification in interviews and questions from live audiences help us refine our messaging and clarify our content – key ingredients for the superpower known as confident communication.   Knowing that we are being heard is gratifying.  Validating what we know and identifying what we’ve yet to learn feed our confidence – at any age and at each level of development and maturation.

So looking forward – literally – in 2018, let’s not allow social media to walk us backward or hinder our growth.  Let us avoid the infantilization of our communication.  Effective communication is our super power as human beings.

Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels, in their places of worship and as keynoters. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college-level courses on oral communication.  She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators.  Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today manages Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or LisaBernard@SecuritySpeak.net and like her firm at www.Facebook.com/PodiumTime.