It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. You’re in the middle of a presentation or coming to a critical point in a media interview and suddenly your mind goes blank.
What on earth were you going to say? Where are you going with this? What the heck comes next?
During our media training courses delegates often ask: “What do I do if my mind goes blank?” To answer this it’s worth exploring why our brains can sometimes apparently switch off at key moments. Very often stress is the cause.
In some cases when we’re under pressure the brain switches off the prefrontal cortex and powers up the more primitive parts of the brain that deal with “flight or fight,” instead. Suddenly rather than processing complex information our brains flood our bodies with adrenaline, preparing them for action by tensing up muscles, quickening the heartbeat and causing rapid, shallow breathing. All this makes it even harder to think of that important point you wanted to make or key statistic you were going to quote.
So, how can you overcome this? Media skills training experts, such as ourselves, will tell you that the first answer is, of course, to really know your stuff.
Many people are surprised by how little they need to know for a media interview. The truth is that for press and certainly for broadcast interviews you can really only put across one or two key messages.
People can find their mind going blank when those minds are stuffed with facts on messages, statistics and other information. Knowing less – but knowing it well is key.
Simplicity applies to your notes as well. Going to do a radio or press interview or delivering a presentation with a whole pile of papers will be more likely to cause you to dry up than not having enough information.
Similarly, if just before a TV interview you’re juggling notes, papers and reports, when you finally start answering the questions on camera there is a danger that all this information will clog up your brain and cause it to freeze. Even if you do manage to keep talking the chances are that your messages will be too numerous and wide ranging for your audience to take on board.
Edit down those messages and use a few bullet points or trigger phrases that will remind you of them, plus an example or proof point for each one.
To avoid that panic reaction, breathe deeply and softly both before and during an interview or presentation. Plant your feet firmly on the floor and stand up or sit up tall. Adopting confident, expansive body language will help you to relax and feel more in control.
But what if the worst does happen and brain fade clicks in? What can you do to overcome it? During a media interview you can always be honest and say: “Sorry, I’ve lost my train of thought,” and then ask the journalist to repeat the question.
You certainly won’t be the first person that this has ever happened to and so your audience, unless they are very hostile, will understand and probably sympathise.
Again, as with preparation, simplicity and focus are your friends here. If you suddenly lose track of what you wanted to say, phrases such as “But, anyway, the point is that…” or “What really matters here is that…” will help you get back to your key message. Media training and presentation skills courses offer a safe environment in which to practice this.
If you’re doing a presentation, again being honest with the audience and taking a moment to breathe, gather your thoughts and break that awful trance that comes with blank mind syndrome will also work. Your audience will almost certainly understand. No one likes to see a presenter suffer because they can imagine themselves in the same situation.
Finally, let’s just put this into perspective. Where media interviews are concerned if you’re a politician or you’re defending your organisation against a serious accusation the interviewer will see it as their duty to hold you to account. They may well allow you to dangle in the wind if your mind goes blank.
However, in the majority of cases all the interviewer wants from you is a few interesting facts and thoughts – backed up with an example or two. During live media interviews it’s the responsibility of the presenter to keep the show on the road and to avoid dead air. Therefore they’re very likely to jump in and keep things going.
Brain fade is something that everyone has suffered but with preparation and rehearsal you can handle it and get back on track.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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