Losing Your Train-of-Thought

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I'll never forget the moment. It was a national convention. The next speaker entered the stage. I knew her to be a friendly, approachable person who was a polished and professional speaker. She sauntered in with the confidence of someone who owned the platform.

And then it happened.

Midway through her speech, she froze. What seemed like a normal pause turned into a longer and longer pause, until the audience realized she had lost her train-of-thought. They immediately shouted words of encouragement. "You go, girl." "Keep going." Finally she recalled her message and exited the stage. She felt mortified. She had hired a coach. She prepared and practiced. How could this happen?

The truth is, brain freeze can happen to anyone. What is brain freeze? It's the moment you go blank, feeling like a virus wiped out your memory bank. It can be a scary moment when you realize it's happening. 

What causes brain freeze? There are a number of reasons.

1. You didn't prepare.

2. You're overtired or overly emotional. This could be the result of over preparing, where you forget the sequence or which story comes next.

3. You feel stage fright.

What can you do if this happens to you? 

Relax. Panicking will keep you frozen in place. If you have brain freeze, you are probably not present. So stand still and breathe. Taking a few deep breaths will help you connect the mind and body.

Buy Time with a Prop. One woman had a moment where she lost her place in the manuscript. Instead of panicking, she took out her glasses and slowly adjusted them on her face. By the time she adjusted the glasses, she had found her place. (By the way, she didn't really need the glasses).

Another variation is to take a drink of water. If you don't have water, ask for someone to bring you a glass. The audience understands when a speaker's throat is dry.

Use Humor. It helps to prepare one liners in advance. Say something like, "I seem to be having a senior moment...It happens a lot these days". This will ensure that the audience knows you're okay.

Ask the Audience for Help. As a former faculty member of New York University, I used to teach a public speaking course. Each faculty member was asked to be part of a panel and to describe their courses. When it was my turn, I experienced a word retrieval problem. I knew what I wanted to say but couldn't access the word. I said to the audience, "What is the word I'm looking for?" They gave it to me and we had a moment of connection.

Improvise. When you need to regroup, gather your thoughts, or find your place, involve the audience in an exercise.  You can say, "At this moment, turn to the person sitting next to you and tell them your biggest challenge, success or...(fill in the blank). Give them 1 minute. Your exercise should relate to your topic. The audience will enjoy the break, you'll increase the energy in the room, and you'll recover from brain freeze.

The good news about the convention speaker who lost her train-of-thought was that she completely recovered, turned it into a story, and then created a podcast. If she can do it, so can you.