So many clients ask me what to do when they “freeze and go blank” when speaking or introducing themselves to a group. These are symptoms of performance anxiety. It mostly occurs in more “formal situations” where we believe there is a high likelihood of judgement – “I might fail” or “I might be disliked or rejected”.
For some people, a “formal” situation like an interview or a meeting, induces a near state of panic with emotions and negative thoughts tumbling out of control, overriding rational sense. Have you ever tried to comfort a “nervous public speaker” by telling them to “just relax and be themselves”? It’s just not going to cut it. They cannot hear you when gripped by mental, emotional and physical paralysis and are likely to keep on doing the same thing, over and over and not moving forward. Just like a rabbit in the headlights.
Here’s a 3 minute video I made about flowing not freezing with my husband’s pet rabbits as props (just go with it):
It Feels Worse Than It Looks
Freezing when public speaking generally feels much worse to the speaker, than it looks to the listener. A 30 second blank, can look like a pause. Taking time to gather your thoughts is appreciated by listeners because it means you are thinking about what you say in the present moment, not repeating mechanised rote. When I film clients for the first time giving a talk, they are amazed that their occasional blank moments come across as natural pauses. What is important is how they deal with it then and there. Running away or giving up just makes it worse the next time.
Train Your Inner Bunny To Survive
Here’s a great story I heard once to explain how to break the freeze and blank pattern:
“To ensure your survival in a burning building like a hotel – when you check in, take the time to read the evacuation procedures and map. Then physically open your door and walk down the hall, counting the number of doors between you and the exit. Ideally, go through the fire door, down the stairs (stay below floor 6!) and out the building. Should an evacuation be necessary, you are much more likely to find the exit because your mind/body remembers everything and you’ve already practised. When you panic, you freeze and stop thinking rationally. So many people die because they freeze and don’t know how to respond to the situation. Instead, just let your body remember to take over and help you.”
How To Stay Connected To Your Flow
- Prepare head and practise. I don’t mean in your mind. I mean with your whole body. Stand up and walk over. Read the thing or say it outlaid. Practise pausing and making eye contact. Wait for responses. Imagine question and answer. Then, practise finishing. Consistently we underestimate or overestimate our capacity depending on our level of self esteem on the day. Practising gives you a reality check and confidence in your ability to handle the situation.
- Don’t whine, beg for rescue or run screaming from the room. Own it. Take a breath, feel your feet, wait for the tears to stop, say “Gee I’ve gone blank – bear with me…” and start from where you left off. Admitting your vulnerability is a bridge builder. People admire seeing triumph over adversity. It’s inspiring, energising and opens conversations and hearts.
- Plan to use less words and express your message with your whole body. This is also a great technique if you feel blank around potential cuties. Simply: face your listeners with your whole body, face and make sustained eye contact – this indicates your interest in being with them. Use your hands and facial expressions. Use props to help you remember your points or to make your point for you. For instance, if you are talking about a book, bring that book with you, show a slide or refer to a handout. It is so much easier to talk about a THING if you have that THING in your hands.
I once warbled my way through a 10 minute speech by singing parts of seven 1930’s show tunes with a few words strung between. Once I realised how well that worked, the tyranny of writing and remembering a clever speech went out the door. You really can do ANYTHING to get your message across once you take the pressure off yourself believing there is only one right way to speak. The key is to find the way that’s right for you. And then you will have found your very own source of flow.