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Has this ever happened to you?
You’re right in the middle of giving what has, so far, been a pretty decent presentation (if you do say so yourself), when suddenly you draw a complete blank. Nada… zip… nothing is coming to mind… and you start to sweat as time seems to slow down and that breakfast burrito you shouldn’t have had starts to make its way back up.
You’ve been hit by the stage fright fairy, and now weird stuff is happening in your brain.
Charles Darwin knew a thing or two about human evolution. He understood that we were able to evolve and thrive over thousands of years because there are primitive parts of our brain that control our reactions to our surroundings. This “fight or flight” response is what has kept our species alive for so long, despite being a delicacy for bears and sabre tooth tigers.
He also knew that perceived threats can seem very real. Once while visiting a snake exhibit at a London zoo, Darwin attempted to put his face as close to the glass in front of a snake he knew was ready to strike.
No matter how hard he tried to remain calm and keep his face next to the glass, Darwin would inevitably jump back each time the snake lunged at him. He later wrote in his diary:
My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.
While Darwin’s intellect could reason that there was no real danger, fear is an ancient response that is hardwired into our brains to keep us safe.
As a public speaker, you may wonder why you get so nervous standing in front of people and discussing a topic you know well. While there may not be a real threat, there is a perceived one—and that is failure; that you will forget what you want to say, that people will stare, a few may even laugh.
Of course, the chances of people actually pointing and laughing are slim to none, but that doesn’t stop the fight or flight response from kicking in, trying to keep you alive and well.
When we perceive a threat, a specific part of our brain gets activated. This area is in charge of critical functions such as regulating blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and blood sugar levels, in addition to maintaining homeostasis, memory (that’s a clue!), and learning.
Essentially, when you fear something, your brain tells your body, “Stop what you’re doing and be prepared to run like h-e-double-hockey-sticks!”
Your hypothalamus discharges corticotropin-releasing factor into the pituitary gland, which triggers the adrenal cortex and leads to the release of several hormones, one of them being adrenaline. Adrenaline helps redirect blood and energy to the parts of the body that will help you stay alive, most notably the heart and muscles.
In doing so, it takes blood and energy away from important processes, such as digestion. (Who needs to digest food when you are running for your life?) As a side note, when blood flow is directed away from your stomach, the blood vessels around the stomach close. It is believed this is what causes that tingly, butterflies in your stomach feeling.
We mentioned that the ancient fight-or-flight response can cause a memory lapse as well. But what specifically happens to your body when you’re giving a presentation?
Besides adrenaline being released into your blood stream when a threat (real or perceived) is noticed, cortisol, another important hormone, is also released. Cortisol does some pretty important things in trying to keep you alive. It manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats and protein, boosts energy, and regulates blood sugar, just to name a few things.
But cortisol has also been shown to impair memory. So, while cortisol helped our ancestors stay one step ahead of those marauding sabre tooths, it doesn’t do a heck of a lot for us when we’re standing in front of an audience, trying to present a speech we’ve worked on tirelessly for weeks.
But here’s the good news…
Having a memory lapse during a presentation is quite common. In fact, there is probably not a single professional speaker that hasn’t experienced it at least once in their career.
While both may be nervous before taking the stage, the difference between a pro and new speaker is how they handle this situation. While the newbie will turn a molehill into a mountain, the pro will remain calm and do the following eight things, summarized in this infographic we created with Visme (or you can click here to skip ahead and read a detailed explanation of each tip).
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One of the biggest newbie mistakes is to freeze and panic. Having a minute of dead silence is a complete giveaway that you have forgotten what you were going to say next.
Don’t stay silent for long or your anxiety (and the audience’s anxiety) will grow. Just say something, anything to break the silence.
One of the best ways to buy yourself some time so you can remember where you were is to ask the audience a question. That question could be rhetorical, or it could genuinely engage the listeners. As an added bonus, not only will you buy yourself some time, but since you will know the answer to your own question, you will remain a figure of authority and none will be the wiser as to what’s really going on!
This is a big trick used by the pros. When you maintain eye contact with your listeners, it keeps you in that position of authority. Try to focus on one specific person (who has a neutral if not pleasant expression) for a few seconds. This will most likely look as if you are intentionally pausing to reinforce your last point.
Another pro tactic is to summarize what you’ve just said. You could say something like, “Now, because I really want you to understand these points, let me briefly go over what I just said,” or “What’s important to remember is…” Something like this will allow your brain to reboot and, as you go back over points A, B and C, your mind will more than likely naturally pick up where you left off.
Pro speakers know they need to stay hydrated throughout their presentation and will always have a bottle of water handy. This is one simple way to kill two presentation birds with one stone. No one in the audience can hold your thirst against you, and while you’re sipping you can take a moment to remember where you were.
When you were creating your presentation, you most likely were using an outline to lay in the right information in the right place. Having this outline on the podium will help you should you ever lose your place. While you’re sipping that water, you could surreptitiously scan your outline.
The reason people get so stuck during a presentation is because they have tried to memorize their entire speech. This is not a play and you are not an actor. You should never freeze because you have forgotten your line.
Instead of memorizing every single word, simply internalize your key messages. Plan on what important information you want to share with your audience, and practice saying the flow of this information. Leave the memorization for Hollywood’s A-listers.
Too many new speakers think the audience expects them to be perfect. NO! Your audience does expect you to be highly-knowledgeable but very human at the same time. Stop thinking your audience is just waiting for you to make a mistake, and when you do, they will all point and laugh.
Your audience is on your side. They want you to succeed. They want to learn from you. They do not expect perfection, but rather an education. You could forget where you were multiple times during your presentation but as long as you leave your audience with a core message and actionable steps to take, they will see you as a huge success.
Having a memory lapse is just part of giving a presentation. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it probably will. But as long as you do what the pros do, you will come across as a pro. Don’t sweat the small stuff, just go out there and have fun.
And if you want to learn all our secrets on how to deliver an unforgettable presentation (as well as how to create visual slides with impact), grab our free e-book below.
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