Why does my mind go blank?

It one of the main reasons people are scared of public speaking...

what if my mind goes blank?!

And we all know that feeling, right? You have rehearsed that speech, standing in front of your bedroom mirror you have it down pat.  But for some reason, when you are up on stage and standing in front of all those people (with all those eyes staring at you) your mind suddelnly stops working.

For a long time, I just assumed that it had to do with nerves or not practising enough. Untill I started researching the science and relaised there's a lot more to it.

But before we look at the science, we have to look at how different parts of the brain work...

1. The first is the hypothalamus - a small part of the brain. In fact, it's about the size of an almond. But it's important.

Put simply, it is the bridge between your emotions and your physical sensations.

It plays an important role in the nervous system as well as in the endocrine system. Why is this important? Because it is responsible for the amount and type of hormones that flow through your body.

2. Second is the hippocampus.  Named after its resemblance to the seahorse (ish).

Humans have two of these, and it is an important part of the brain.  It is crucial for the retrieval of facts and concepts.  In fact, in Althzeimers disease, it is one of the first areas to suffer damage.

Psychologists and neuroscientists generally agree that the hippocampus plays an important role in the formation of new memories about experienced events.

3. The third is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Located behind your eyes, this is the calm, cool, rational part of your brain. All the things that suggest you, as a human being, are in control are largely mediated here: things like working memory (the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind), impulse control (the ability to dampen unwanted behavioural responses), decision making (the ability to select a proper response between competing possibilities), etc.

How it works when you're rehearsing

When you're rehearsing your speech in your bedroom it's easy right? Becuase it's a no-risk situation.  If you stumble over a line or forget something - it doesnt mattter.  You can just start again. 

In other words, you are able to engage in cold cognition. This is the term given to logical and rational thinking processes.

When you are rehearsing in a quiet bedroom with no one watching, the hypothalamus slows down the production and release of key stress hormones while the PFC and hippocampus are confidently chugging along unimpeded.

How it works on stage

Now, let's move to the stage.  Perhaps it's a presentation in fron of colleagues at work. 

We have now moved from the world of no-risk to high-risk.  It may even trigger a set of negative thinking.

My boss is sitting just over there.  If I stuff this up in front of everyone, I can kiss that promotion goodbye

Hello hot cognition!

This is the term given to non-logical and emotionally driven thinking processes. Hot cognition is typically triggered in response to a clear threat or otherwise highly stressful situation.

With this type of loaded thinking, giving the speech is no interpreted by your body as the threat. When a threat is detected, the hypothalamus stimulates the generation of several key stress hormones, including norepinephrine and cortisol.

Large levels of norepinephrine enter the PFC and serve to dampen neuronal firing and impair effective communication.

What does this mean?  The PFC stops working and essentially wipes out your working memory!

It also stops the rational, logical PFC from influencing other brain regions.

But wait theres more.

At the same time, large levels of cortisol enter the hippocampus and not only disrupt activation patterns there, but also (with prolonged exposure) kill hippocampal neurons. This serves to impede the ability to access old memories and skews the perception and storage of new memories.


In short, when you interpret the speech as a threat- a stress response is triggered in your body.  Your working memory is wiped clean, your recall mechanisms are disrupted, and your hypothalamus overrides the normally rational cold cognition driven by the PFC.

So can we do anything about it?

Of course!  First of all let's start with some of the triggers.

1. Get used to the silence

When you're not used to speaking in public, one of the most uncomfortable moments come with the silence.  So, you compensate by filling in any possible gap with words. 

Not only does this make it hard to listen to you - it puts even more pressure on you if you do have a mind blank.

The answer is to get used to the silence.  When you rehearse, also include long pauses at the end of each paragraph.  If you're really keen, record your rehearsals and watch it back. Before you watch the recording, estimate how long you thought the silence went for and then time it.  You will be surprised at how short these little gaps were.

2. Don't try to be perfect

The possibility of a mind blank increases when you are aiming for perfection.  Before you get onto stage, accept the fact that your speech will not be perfect.  No one's speech is ever perfect. 

As Dale Carnegie said, “There are three speeches...The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”











The battle of body language

The US Presidential debate was always going to be a battle of two different styles.  Trump, the ad-lib billionaire Republican against Clinton, the Democratic former secretary of state. Indeed, the FiveThirtyEight blog's political team, a "Bart Simpson versus Lisa Simpson" scenario.

While body language is important in any speech or presentation.  It seems to be exponentially so in the US presidential debates.  Even today, the media refers to the 2000 debate when Gore slumped and sighed during one of Gerge W. Bush’s responses.

On Monday, Clinton was clearly determined to win the body-language battle.

It was fascinating to watch the debate on split-screen.  Clinton remained poised and smiled constantly.  She noticeably lifted her lifting her chin at a high angle. She never got agitated or grimaced. It was a very disciplined performance. And when Trump fumbled his way through an answer about Obama’s birth certificate she even gave a little shimmy to show how much she was going to enjoy her rebuttal. 

By contrast, Trump struggled to remain still during Clinton’s answers and was reduced to constantly interruptions during her answers. 



What is your point?

Writing a speech can be a complex exercise.  Most people can easily tell you what their speech is about.  However, they will struggle when asked to explain the core message of their speech.

As Mark Twain once said the time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.  By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.


Puncturing Perfection

Too many speakers fall into the trap of believing that they are expected to be the smartest person in the room. Or at least the smartest person on the subject matter.

It is this type of thinking that puts too much pressure on the speaker.

Yes, when the spotlight is on you, people are looking to you for answers.  But they don't necessarily expect you to have all the answers.  In fact, sometimes the best way to gain authenticity is to simply admit "you don't know the answer, but you can find out"

The speaker who tries to bluff, or assumes they have all the answers is usually the last one asked for an opinion.


The 4 stages of Competence

The best techniques are always invisible.  If you can remember the first time you ever drove a car - it was terrifying.  You are in control of a dangerous and potentially deadly activity.  The simple act of turning right at a set of lights was overly complex.  You had to remember how to watch the clutch, change gears, look for oncoming traffic all at the same time.  Of course after few weeks, you can do the same thing while letting your mind drift. 

In psychology, this evolution is described as the four stages of competence, or the "conscious competence" learning model.  It  relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.


The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

The four stages:


You have never given much thought to how you sound or look when you give a presentation.  You haven't even thought about improving your skills.  The bad news is that you probably aren't that good at presentations, but the good news is that you are ignorant to the fact!


You are completely aware of how bad you are at presentations.  You might have tried a few new techniques, but they are new and they feel a bit strange.


You have now mastered a whole range of new skills, but you need to concentrate to keep it all together.


You have now reached mastery,  The techniques are now a part of you and you can use them without consciously thinking about it.


Think about where you are in the hierarchy by asking yourself a few questions:

  • Are you often asked to give presentations?
  • Do you always receive compliments after you give a presentation?
  • Do you actively persuade people through your presentations?
  • Are you ever asked to repeat points you have already made in your presentation?
  • People seem to remember things you have said during your presentation?

Next record yourself given a short presentation.  Take a moment to describe the impression you get from seeing yourself speak. 

List the things your were proud of.  Then list the things your need to improve. 

By now you should have a good idea of where you are and what you need to do.







After 40 years in show business you would think John Cleese had conquered his stage fright. John Cleese had stage fright in his Footlights days, and this continued through his pre-Python work as a television actor. Before his first live TV performance, on The Frost Report, “I sat and watched the second hand on the wall clock as it steadily ticked off the final moments”, feeling “TOTAL DREAD”.


I'm a big fan of Seth Godin.  He's the author of several books about “marketing, the spread of ideas and managing both customers and employees with respect”. They are bestsellers. His blog is one of my favourites and I highly recommend it. 

In a recent blog post he listed two of the biggest errors public speakers make which lead to fear:

1. You believe that you are being actively judged

2. You believe that the subject of the talk is you


This is a natural trap for any public speaker.  The idea that the audience is actively judging them.

However, they will judge what you have to say...

presentation skills training sydney 1

You are not being judged, the value of what you are bringing to the audience is being judged. The topic of the talk isn't you, the topic of the talk is the audience, and specifically, how they can use your experience and knowledge to achieve their objectives.

When a professional singer sings a song of heartbreak, his heart is not breaking in that moment. His performance is for you, not for him. (The infinite self-reference loop here is that the professional singer finds what he needs when you find what you need.)

Any public speaker needs to understand that the audience is only interested in themselves.  They don't want you to fail - quite the opposite.  They are hoping they will learn something from you.  If not, they are hoping to be at least be entertained.   

Otherwise, they’ve wasted their time. 

Stop thinking about your presentation from own perspective and start thinking from the audience's perspective. 


The second notion is takes time to understand.  The best speakers understand that they are merely vessels for the presentation's content. 

public speaking coach

When you stand up to give a speech, there's a temptation to believe that the audience is actually interested in you.

This just isn't true. (Or if it is, it doesn't benefit you to think that it is).

If you dive into your (irrelevant to the listener) personal hurdles, if you try to justify what you've done, if you find yourself aswirl in a whirlpool of the resistance, all you're providing is a little schadenfreude as a form of entertainment.

This is a tough mental shift for many people.  After all, you are the star of the show right? You are the one up on the stage.  All the eyes are (hopefully) on you.      

It involves a shift in focus, from self to audience, from inward to outward, from self-consciousness to group consciousness.  It’s not easy to make that jump in awareness, but if you can, you will be liberated to become a joyful public speaker.

presentation skills training sydney seth.jpg

Both of these ideas come from the stories that we tell ourselves.  The challenge is for any public speaker is to replace those stories with new ones. 

Public speaking is just another form of communication.  And the point of any communication is to make a connection.  A connection between sender and recipient.  The recipient has to get it – the content – for the communication to be successful.  The sooner speakers redefine their roles as mentors and guides helping audiences on a journey the more joyful speeches there will be.

A said in the words of Seth himself:

On the other hand, if you realize that you have a chance to be generous in this moment, to teach and to lead, you can leave the self-doubt behind and speak a truth that the audience needs to hear. When you bring that to people who need it, your fear pales in comparison.

That's why you're doing it. The faster we get over ourselves, the sooner we can do a good job for those tuning in.

The problem with Abbott's press release



After surviving the recent spill motion, Abbott released a short press statement that was refreshingly short and to the point.  However, the opening line was perplexing:

"The Liberal Party has dealt with the spill motion and now this matter is behind us."

Why say this nonsense? It's quite clear to everyone that this matter is not over.   Abbott still faces a big challenge in holding on to his position as leader.  

There is a good lesson here for anyone writing a speech. It's about authenticity.  Authenticity is crucial if you ever want to be persuasive.  

By opening their press statement with this sentence, the whole message was undermined.  


How to stop talking so fast

In the telemarketing game, your voice matters.  We all know that frequent verbal ticks, such as “um” and “like,” can turn listeners off. But how about the pace?

A team from the University of Michigan found that telemarketers with certain vocal characteristics were far more persuasive than others.  Overall, the study found, the ideal pace of speech is not too fast but not too slow.  

A speed of about 3.5 words per second was considered ideal. Slower or faster speakers weren’t as effective at getting people to listen to their pitch. That’s not surprising, the researchers said, since people who talk fast tend to be seen as not trustworthy, while those who speak too slowly are usually perceived as slow-witted or overly pedantic.

So why does the pace of your speech matter?

Let's start by looking at the words in the graphic below.


It's tough to read right? Not impossible, but not fun. 

When you speak too fast, you do the same thing with your spoken words. You don't leave any nice spaces of silence between phrases and sentences.  This makes you listeners word too hard, and most of the time they will just switch off.

This is a serious problem for you, the speaker, because people will draw conclusions about you based on

  1. how you speak,
  2. how you write and
  3. how you think...in that order.

As Lord Chesterfield summed it up, "The manner of your speaking is full as important as the matter, as more people have ears to be tickled than understanding to judge."

There have been heaps of scientific studies that back this up.  Fast talkers often get credit for being smart, but they are also more likely to be criticised behind their backs!

When psychologists first began examining the effect of speech rate on persuasion, they thought the answer was obvious.  Your fast talking slick salesman would win.  

 In 1976 Norman Miller and colleagues tried to convince participants that caffeine was bad for them (Miller et al., 1976). The results suggested people were most persuaded when the message was delivered at a fully-caffeinated 195 words per minute rather than at a decaffeinated 102 words per minute.

At 195 words per minute, about the fastest that people speak in normal conversation, the message became more credible to those listening, and therefore more persuasive. Talking fast seemed to signal confidence, intelligence, objectivity and superior knowledge. Going at about 100 words per minute, the usual lower limit of normal conversation, was associated with all the reverse attributes.

These results, along with a couple of other studies, lead some researchers to think that speaking quickly was a potential ‘magic bullet’ of persuasion. Perhaps we should watch out for people who speak quickly—who knows what we might agree to.

Reverse effect

By the 1980s, though, other researchers had begun to wonder if these results could really be correct. They pointed to studies suggesting that while talking faster seemed to boost credibility, it didn’t always boost persuasion. The effects of talking fast might not all be positive; for example, when someone talks quickly it can be hard to keep up with what they are saying, so the persuasive message doesn’t have a chance to take hold.

By the 1990s a more nuanced relationship between speech rate and persuasion emerged. Stephen Smith and David Shaffer, for example, tried to convince one group of student participants the legal age for drinking should be kept at 21 (Smith & Shaffer, 1991). Another group they tried to persuade the age should not be 21 (this was shortly after the legal age for drinking in the US was raised to 21).


Fast, slow and intermediate speech rates were employed and this time a telling twist emerged. When the message was counter-attitudinal (you’ll be amazed to hear that college students don’t like the idea they can’t legally drink in bars), fast talking was more persuasive than the intermediate, with slow talking being the least persuasive of all.

Exactly the reverse effect was seen when the message was pro-attitudinal. When preaching to the converted, it was slow speech that emerged as the most persuasive.

The question became: why does the effect reverse when the audience is hostile to the message? Here’s what seems to happen. When an audience starts hearing a message it doesn’t like (no beer for you), but slowly, it has time to come up with counter-arguments, so less persuasion occurs. However when the speech is quicker there’s less time to come up with these counter-arguments, so more persuasion.

It works the other way around when the audience does like the message (loads of beer for you). When the message comes in too quickly, there isn’t time to evaluate and agree with it more. But, when it comes in slow, there’s plenty of time to evaluate the arguments, agree and be even more persuaded that you should be able to drink in bars.

In fact, speed by itself is rarely the issue. The constant speed is what causes the trouble. People who speak at a constant clip, whether slow or fast, are likely to frustrate their listeners. They not only bore us with their own special brand of monotony (sameness of speed), they undermine the natural physical aspect of speech.

Speech is physical because it comes from the body. We need to remind ourselves of that. It's not just a mental exercise. Talking engages the muscles of the abdomen, the throat, the tongue, and the lips. Speech literally embodies ideas—it brings ideas, thoughts and logic onto the physical plane. 

But speech carries more than words and logic. Since it comes from the body, it creates physical sensations in listeners. It is, at bottom, sound. And we are all familiar with the power of sound to create mood and feeling. Think of chalk on a blackboard, a door creaking open, wind in the branches of pines at night. Many sounds, not just music, have qualities that stir us deeply. Your voice, used effectively, has that same power. But speaking too fast tends to rob your voice of its physical resonance, creating sound that is divorced from the rhythm of a good, deep breath. 



Fast talking is often perceived as a sign of nervousness and a sign of low self-confidence.  Many people will interpret your fat talking as a sign that you don't think people want to listen to you, or that what you have to say is not important.

Vocal Strength

When you don't pause between phrases or sentences it often puts a strain on your voice.  Your run out of breath so the words near the end of your sentences lack volume and clarity.


When you fly through your words, your tongue and lips often can't keep up with your mind.  You then start to drop important vowels and consonants, causing your listeners to miss your meaning.  And when they miss your meaning, most won't tell you that they can't understand you. 

So how do you slow down?

Here is an exercise used by actors when they first learn a script.  

You take that sentence from earlier and mark it with a slash wherever you want to insert a pause. For example:

I think I talk too fast / but now I'm told / that I just need / to introduce more pauses.

Actors will take this approach to their entire script.  And by doing this you will find that the deliberate pauses will stop you from running away with your speech.   

By practising this way, you will learn that you don't need to talk so fast and become comfortable talking at a slower pace.  

Look people in the eye when speaking. That will slow you down because you get feedback from your listener. You can see whether or not your listener understands what you're saying. That sense of connection with your target will help you pace your words so they hit the mark.

Breathe more often. You will have more energy for your voice. You will feel calmer. You will have enough air to keep the energy in your voice right through to the end of the phrase.
Click here to read an article on breathing.

Pause between phrases. The pauses will give your listeners a chance to digest what you've said. Speech that comes from a person who is breathing deeply and regularly is easier to hear and understand. Click here to read an article on pausing. 

Do you find Tony Abbott authentic?

Yesterday's speech by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to the National Press Club was one of the most important in his political career.  It was a direct pitch to his colleagues to keep their trust in him.  Abbott message made it clear that he intended to stand and fight - for the Liberal Party, for his government and for his own leadership – rather than meekly stepping aside.

However, Abbott has never been the strongest orator and according to most reports, he failed to inspire his intended audience.  Queensland Liberal MP Ewan Jones probably summed it up best when he said Abbott's language needed to be “less corporate lunch and more cafe”.  

Abbott had clearly poured a lot of work into the speech, but in the end it was more pedestrian than inspiring.  

So where did it all go wrong? Here are three problems with Abbott's speaking style.

Using Notes

While there is nothing wrong with using notes for this type of address.  Abbott was constantly looking down which then distracted him from delivering his best lines with gravitas.

The video below is a good example.  It is a strong part of his speech where he justifies the spending cuts due to the large level of national borrowing.  However, just when he is about to drive home his point, he keeps checking for his next line which just makes his delivery stilted.

Body Language

Generally, Abbott's body language is quite good.  He has a neutral stance and appears comfortable behind the lectern.  But there was a moment towards to the end of the speech where he implored the audience to join him on a journey and he waved his arms wildly in the air.  Unfortunately it looked very contrived and actually detracted from his message.   


If you want to be perceived as authentic then your use of language is critical.  Unfortunately, Abbott's address constantly referred back to meaningless slogans.

This passage in particular grated: "To create more jobs and more opportunities for families, we simply have to build a stronger economy.  A stronger economy is the foundation of a stronger Australia.  And if the economy is stronger, everyone’s life is better."  

This is just stating the obvious.  It should be taken as given that we all want a stronger economy! This is the type of empty rhetoric that makes the voters turn off.  


How to rehearse properly

I think it's fair to say that most presentations are not rehearsed properly.  

In fact, I know that many speakers don't even bother to practice their presentation out loud.  

It is this lack of preparation that leads to so many mediocre presentations.  

Why is rehearsal so important?

When you don't rehearse, you are essentially delivering a draft.  Would you ever write a business email without proof reading it first? Of course not.  The same goes for a presentation. You really have no idea what your presentation is like until you deliver it out loud.

And when I say rehearse, I don't mean going through it in your head or muttering through parts of it driving in the car.  Proper rehearsal means standing stall and delivering it out loud  as you plan to on the day.  Whether you practice to your spouse, your cat or a blank wall.  You have to deliver it at full volume all the way through. 

A surprising thing happens when you practice your presentation out loud.  You will suddenly identify sentences and phrases that sound completely wrong, even though they look fine on paper.  That's because they way we write is vastly different to the way we talk.  When we write we are free to use long sentences with multiple clauses.  When we write we are often more formal and elaborate than when we talk.  

All of this makes you look like your putting on a front and takes away from your authenticity.   

Study any good speech and you will find that they are peppered with short punchy sentences.  Simple language that doesn't look inspiring on the page but resonates when delivered from the stage.  

The number one way to rehearse 

The only way to rehearse properly is to get out a camera and record yourself.  There's really no excuse not to.  Today you will a find a camera on your phone, your laptop and your iPad.  

Is it painful watching yourself speak on camera?  Yes it is until you get used to it.  But it's a whole lot less painful than wasting the time of your audience because you were boring or hard to follow!


Be like Buffet

“You’ve got to be able to communicate in life. It’s enormously important.

If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.”

That was Warren Buffett's answer to the question "what habits did you cultivate in your 20s and 30s that you see as the foundation of success?” 

Presentation Skills Sydney.jpg

But to understand his answer, you have to realise when Buffett was a younger man, he absolutely terrified of public speaking.  During university he would only select subjects that didn't require a presentation.

However, like many aspiring businessmen, he he realised during his first job that he needed to conquer this fear if he was going to get anywhere.  So, he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie public speaking course.  Needless to say, he got over this fear.  

Nowadays, people flock to see the "Oracle of Omaha" every year to witness him deliver his annual address to his shareholders. Some people buy shares in his company just so they can attend this presentation!

But it wasn't just a case of joining a class. Buffett admitted that in high school and college he held a deep-seated fear of public speaking. Even the thought of taking a public speaking class unnerved him, and he backed out at the last second the first time he signed up. But he realized that you just have to do it, and he did.

“If you can’t communicate and talk to other people… you’re giving up your potential,”

If you’re an introvert, Buffett said, you have to get out there and “you have to do it. And the sooner you do it, the better. It’s so much easier to learn the right habits when you’re young. If you have a fear of associating with people, you have to go out there and do it, and it’s painful… When I was young and completed the [public speaking] course, I was worried I would lapse back… so I started teaching a class at night and, you know, you’ve got to force yourself to do some things sometimes.”

Part of great communication is making sure you read a lot. Buffett says he reads five to six hours a day.

The bottom line, said Buffett, is to “just get yourself out there and force yourself to get into situations with people. Most of them don’t bite!”