“Backlash.” That was the word I was trying to remember. I was telling a story during a presentation and talking about how a company had changed their policy in response to the . . . the . . . But the word wouldn’t come. It was lodged somewhere in my brain. I was experiencing a mind blank which left me awkwardly stammering in front of my audience.
If you’ve given many presentations, chances are you’ve had something like this happen. Mind blanks can come in many forms, but they happen most often when a speaker grasps for a word that he or she can’t remember. And personally, this has always been my biggest speaking struggle.
Here’s why. I’m not only a speaker. I’m a writer. So for me, words matter. The exact words matter. If I had planned to say “backlash” and had practiced saying “backlash” in my rehearsals, when I got up to present, I wanted to say “backlash.” That’s the word that fit there, like a puzzle piece. But I hated the awkward moments that happened while I was searching, often unsuccessfully, for that one word.
I never thought of the word “backlash” during my presentation. I ended up saying something about customers causing a raucous and sending angry emails instead. About 4 hours later when I was doing something completely unrelated to my presentation, the word came to out of nowhere. The way it usually does. Backlash! That’s the word I needed!
It was a reminder that no amount of experience or practice can make every presentation go off without a hitch. But I needed a solution. I needed some strategy or technique to use the next time something like this inevitably happened.
I started digging, searching for a solution to my problem. The solution I encountered was one I initially disagreed with. It was 9 simple words in an article by Olivia Mitchell called “How to Prevent and Recover from Mind Blanks.” It said: “There is no such thing as the right word.”
Wrong, I thought. I make my living speaking and teaching and writing. So my livelihood depends on the ability to use the right words. But wait. What if Mitchell was right? What if, when speaking, it was more damaging to my presentation to search for that one word than to substitute another?
I could definitely see how that might be the case. So I decided to try it. I told myself before each lecture or presentation, “there is no such thing as the right word.” And it helped. When I forgot the word I wanted to use, I didn’t stand there awkwardly searching for the word. Instead, I just quickly chose another one.
Most of the time we feel the pressure of performing in front of the audience, so we end up doing this any way. This strategy just helps to take out that hesitation so the audience never knows something went wrong. The presentation flows more smoothly.
If you are too locked into using exact words, or want to try another strategy, here are a couple other ways to deal with mind blanks:
Involve the audience. Tell them you can’t think of the word you are trying to recall. Most of the time, they know what it is you are looking for from the content and context clues. This will give them a chance to participate. But it will also form a connection between you and your audience because they extended help to you. Research shows that asking someone for a favor can form a bond between you.
Embrace the pause. Instead of stammering around, use the opportunity to show that you are a careful communicator. Saying something like, “I want to make sure I communicate this correctly” or “I want to get this exactly right for you.” That admission will usually get your thoughts flowing again. And your attention to detail could earn you credibility points with your audience.
Mind blanks don’t have to derail your presentation. Even though it can feel like you’ve slammed into a brick wall when they happen, there are ways around them. Release your grip on control. Tell yourself you can still communicate clearly without using that exact word. Or involve the audience or embrace the pause. All of these strategies will help to keep your presenting moving smoothly.
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