Avoiding total mind blank

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

People often tell me that when it comes to public speaking, their mind goes blank – or they’re worried that their mind will go blank.

What is it about “mind blank” ?

In most parts of your life, your mind functions perfectly well. If you go to make a cup of tea, you don’t suddenly have a mind blank about where the teabags live, or how to get the milk out of the fridge. If you’re chatting with a friend in a café you don’t suddenly forget everything that you were going to say. So, what is it about public speaking that has so much emotional charge?

Why would your mind go blank?

People think that because I’m a professional speaker and I don’t suffer from mind blanks when speaking, that I might not know what a mind blank is. Well, here’s a classic example:

I was driving along the Pakuranga highway (in Auckland, New Zealand, if you’re reading this somewhere else in the world), when I became aware of a police car behind me. The blue and red lights were flashing, and the sound of the siren created a sense of urgency. Obviously, being a good citizen, I pulled over to let the police car drive past to attend to whatever an important business or crime was occurring. 

To my utter astonishment, when I pulled over, the police car pulled over behind me. Oh my goodness! Was the police car actually pulling me over? What?!

What you may not know about me is that I am something of a goodie-two-shoes. To my annoyance sometimes, I am the most law-abiding, rule-bound person you can imagine. So, why on earth was I being pulled over? I wasn’t speeding, I hadn’t swerved between lanes, I didn’t skip a red light; I was completely baffled.

So, just a pause for a moment,  imagining the scene – what was occurring for me was confusion and overwhelm. My mind was racing and asking lots of questions to try and explain what was happening. My emotional state was heightened by the confusion.

It is the accumulation of all of this that causes the mind blank (we’ll return to that in a moment).

When the police officer approached the car, I quickly turned off the music whilst trying to open my driver’s window. I had turned off the engine, so suddenly I realize I couldn’t make the electric window open without turning the key again. Once that was done, the officer introduced herself and told me she observed that while I was stationary at the previous set of lights that I had looked down.

(I was even more confused by this – is looking down while stationary a traffic offence?)

She explained that she wondered if I had been using a mobile phone. A quick glance around the car showed no evidence of a mobile phone. She seemed satisfied, but continued asking me questions and I wasn’t at all sure why.

“Where are you driving to?” she asked. And then it happened. The mind blank. I literally froze and I could not for the life of me remember where the heck I was going. In the end, all I could manage as a response was: “I’m sorry, I’m a bit flustered.”

This is the infamous mind blank that people experience when speaking in public, or are terrified that they will experience.

The important point here is that the mind bank has been caused by an accumulation of things. It is not one thing that caused it, but many.

If you re-examine that episode, many things and thoughts were happening all at the same time:

Things and thoughts when your mind goes blank

Until finally the question: “Where are you going?” seems like the straw that broke the camel’s back. All of my mental capacity had already been taken up.

Of course all of this happens so quickly that we really underestimate the cumulative effect of stressors on the mind. 

But it’s exactly the same in public speaking. It’s the cumulative effect of all worries and concerns that threatens, or leads to, a mind blank. No single thing will cause a mind blank, it’s the accumulation of many.

Notice that in the example above, almost half of the stressors are not what is actually happening, but my own internal dialogue about what could be happening or might have happened. The great news is that a mind blank wouldn’t occur if just a few of these stressors were already handled. And that’s what public speaking training is all about. 

People often think they should focus on the content they create, or in ironing out irritating little habits they have (e.g., saying ‘erm’ and waving their hands too much). But it is much more powerful to clean up your mind set and develop a habit of confidence when speaking. Because as in my episode on the highway, if the internal dialogue is taken care of, then that is many of the factors mitigated that can accumulate to a mind blank.

As far as internal dialogue, as a rule of thumb, if a thought bubbles into your head, its negative and hasn’t happened yet, then it’s of no value whatsoever.

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