Professional panic filter
June 19, 2009 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I had a potentially damaging lapse of ability at work today and need some advice on how to keep it from happening ever again.

I consider myself a very decent public speaker, especially when well-prepared and rehearsed. But once every few years, when I am asked to speak extemporaneously in a pubilc venue, I lose it. My brain just freezes, my heart begins to race, I run quickly out of breath, and I can’t think of what I want to say, even when the topic is something I know well and discuss every day. Once my mind realizes this is going to happen, the situation snowballs and becomes worse and worse by the second.

This happened to me today on a thirty-person conference call, when asked a really simple question (by someone important at work) about something that I know intimately. It was so bad that I stumbled and fumbled and ultimately had to say, "I can't speak right now."

I have tried strategies like asking a clarifying question to give me time to recover, but it doesn’t always work; and frankly, there are some situations where it's hard or inappropriate to ask a clarifying question. Similarly, I can't have talking points with me all the time, about every possible topic.

To reiterate: This is a rare thing, and only seems to happen when I have not been expecting to speak in public and someone points to me and says ‘go!.’ At the same time, it has occurred a few times in pretty high-stakes situations, and it does not do me any favors, professionally.

What can I do to make sure these incidents don’t happen again?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I get some mileage out of responses like "let me think about that for a minute" or taking a sip from a cup of coffee or water (which wouldn't work on a conference call as well as in person). The 'sorry, I had to mute out for a moment, could you run that by me again?' tactic works pretty well, too.

I would try to latch onto a couple of points that I knew I wanted to make during the call or meeting. As soon as I was asked to talk, go into them - even if it means a slight derail for a couple of minutes. You get some control over the conversation at that point, and might not get knocked on your heels as easily.

I was going to mention Toastmasters, but then read your reiteration that this is a rarity. Still, they might be able to help with some extemporaneous speaking that would your confidence level up and over this, since it looks like it might become a self-fulfilling kind of thing.
posted by jquinby at 9:41 AM on June 19, 2009


This is exactly what I was going to suggest: "I would try to latch onto a couple of points that I knew I wanted to make during the call or meeting. As soon as I was asked to talk, go into them - even if it means a slight derail for a couple of minutes. You get some control over the conversation at that point, and might not get knocked on your heels as easily."

Ride your own point for a minute or two, then switch over to answer their question.
posted by chrisalbon at 9:46 AM on June 19, 2009


Practice double-speak. Honing the ability to talk and yet say nothing can be handy when you freeze up or are nervous.
posted by Flood at 9:46 AM on June 19, 2009


If this is another call:

"I'm sorry. Let me catch up. I like to take notes while I listen in. OK, let me think about that for a second. So, please correct me if I'm wrong, but you're saying XYZ. All right, my answer is ..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:46 AM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would try to latch onto a couple of points that I knew I wanted to make during the call or meeting.

That's actually brilliant.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:47 AM on June 19, 2009


You can practice a phrase like, "Can I get back to you on that? I don't have my notes with me and I'd like to make sure I'm giving you accurate information." When you freeze up, say this and make a note of what it is you need to get back to them on later.

It happens to almost everyone, including important people. There is no shame in saying, I'm not sure right now, I don't have it in front of me, can I get back to you. (Make sure you get back to them.) It will happen more frequently if you freeze up and get anxious about it (self-fulfilling prophecy) but if you practice letting these things happen like they're no big deal, my experience is that it becomes no big deal.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:48 AM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Toastmasters? Part of their training includes practice with impromptu unprepared public speaking.
posted by cadge at 9:52 AM on June 19, 2009


I would try to latch onto a couple of points that I knew I wanted to make during the call or meeting.

That's actually brilliant.


Is it? I'd call that "Pulling a Palin", like she did during the VP debate. Unless you're really smooth, it comes off pretty clearly like you're evading a direct question and playing power games. Avoid.

Rephrasing the question, or asking the person to repeat it "to make sure you understand it correctly", is an excellent stalling tactic I employ all the time.
posted by mkultra at 9:56 AM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]



I have this problem too.

I suggest two things:

1) It sounds like you got caught off-guard. Be prepared mentally to speak. I don't mean have a comprehensive list of talking points, but practice some situational awareness. If you're on a 30 person conference call, be alert and anticipate having to contribute.

2) Practice. Again, it sounds like being well-rehearsed and having notes works well for you, but as you experienced, this isn't possible all the time. You've trained yourself to need notes. When there are no notes, you're stuck. The only way around this I can think of is to practice speaking publicly without notes. I agree with jquinby that Toastmasters (or practicing this at work) will help.


Also: completely disagree with Flood. Sure, you may be talking, but saying nothing of substance is even worse.
posted by roofone at 9:57 AM on June 19, 2009


Is it? I'd call that "Pulling a Palin", like she did during the VP debate.

If your points derail too much, yes, it can look evasive and dumb. But the meeting or con call isn't completely out of the blue, so there is (or should be) some legitimate context to draw from.

roofone's suggestion regarding situational awareness is dead on.

There is a decent bag of tricks forming on this thread - draw from all of them and you'll be able to roll with these a lot easier. Get your confidence up a bit and you'll be fine.
posted by jquinby at 10:02 AM on June 19, 2009


If you really want to fix this, join Toastmasters. You'll get a lot of practice speaking extemporaneously.
posted by timeistight at 10:04 AM on June 19, 2009


Fake a coughing fit?
posted by Carol Anne at 10:08 AM on June 19, 2009


Realistically, things can, and do, come out of the blue. As much as possible (to echo the talking points advice) never go into a calling/speaking situation without something reading. Kind of a 'constant vigilance' mode, to be honest. If there's any chance of a meeting, don't go in without some prep work. Even a little bit will allow you to feel a bit more comfort when you have to start speaking. Starting from a solid kernel can give you more room to move, more comfort.

Possibly? Keep a notebook, small, easily carried in a pocket, with details of what projects you're working on, and pertinent details. Do this until you no longer need to write stuff. Don't be afraid to refer to it before you have to speak (in front of a crowd) or to ask for a moment to access the relevant numbers (phone).
posted by Ghidorah at 10:16 AM on June 19, 2009


This is a bit harder once you're out of college, but find an adult debating league near you. Standardized tournament debate is incredibly nerve-wracking. British Parliamentary style, for example, involves you and your partner receiving a random topic chosen by the judge, preparing for 15 minutes, and then giving a speech that's 7 minutes long. Depending on the order of speakers you may be able to prepare while other people speak, but remember that you'd also need to prop up your partner and come up with rebuttals to your opponents. It's a very immersive and intense way of training yourself to think fast while maintaining eloquence, and something similar should really be a required course for all colleges.
posted by Phire at 10:18 AM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


This has happened to me twice in my career, in different jobs. The one thing both occurrences had in common was that I had a) skipped breakfast and b) drank a whole lot of coffee instead (in the thought that it would power me through the day). Deadly combination, at least in my case -- it's like the low blood sugar was making me think slower, and the caffeine made me panic and unable to recover when I hit an unexpected question.

Since the last time I've been very careful, especially when I know I've got a presentation or important meeting coming up, to eat right and go easy on the stimulants, so I feel balanced and more relaxed. Hasn't happened since. In addition to the good tactical advice you're getting, give some thought to what your own body needs to function best in general, so your mind is better able to respond to the unexpected.
posted by Zippity Goombah at 11:13 AM on June 19, 2009


I think that mkultra has a good point, but jquinby is pointing out a very common tactic. Watch cable news for a couple of hours and you'll see guest after guest doing it to some extent. Whether they do it skillfully is another matter: cf. Palin. A smooth, experienced politician should be able to reframe a question in their own terms with very little effort. Palin was awkward and uncharismatic, as well as obviously out of her league.

But the "canned response" is something that any salesman or any executive should be comfortable using, even if it's as simple as "I don't have that in front of me, but let me run some numbers and get back to you." There are all sorts of variations possible depending on the informality of the situation. "Ho! Bob, you really put me on the spot here. I don't have that with me today. Can I follow up with you next time?" "I have actually been looking into that but I don't have any firm conclusions yet." "This is a priority for us and we will be presenting an enterprise solution soon." "I didn't realize that was becoming a concern, but I will be giving it my full attention." Etc.

It's much better to be disarming and honest than to come across as defensive or worse, evasive.
posted by dhartung at 11:22 AM on June 19, 2009


I consider myself a very decent public speaker, especially when well-prepared and rehearsed. But once every few years, when I am asked to speak extemporaneously in a pubilc venue, I lose it. My brain just freezes, my heart begins to race, I run quickly out of breath, and I can’t think of what I want to say, even when the topic is something I know well and discuss every day. Once my mind realizes this is going to happen, the situation snowballs and becomes worse and worse by the second.

In case you don't know, this is nearly a textbook description of a panic attack, sometimes linked to an underlying anxiety problem. I've had almost the exact symptom you describe. For me, it's ultimately related to maladaptive perfectionism and the pressure I put on myself to perform up to my full potential right now and without effort.

Many factors seem to align in your example: being put on the spot, talking to many colleagues, talking directly to VIP, phone-conferencing preventing all non-verbal cues we rely on to be comfortable around others, expecting yourself to easily give a good answer to the specific question, being distressed at your own distress, and so forth. Actually, managing to say, "I can't speak," is much more than I could have done.

The oft-recommended book by David Burns, Feeling Good, was (and still is) very helpful to me.
posted by zennie at 11:45 AM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am in Toastmasters, and I joined for this problem exactly. It has definitely helped, as every meeting has a portion for extemporaneous speaking. I've never had much of a problem with prepared speeches, but impromptu would definitely be a problem for me.

So, I recommend Toastmasters. Let me tell you what it'll help you with--one of which you can develop on your own, one not as much.

1. "Active listening." For me, I'll get that anxiety for a response if I haven't been constantly listening to the question (or conversation) and figuring out where the question or conversation is going to go, and what possible directions I could take with a response. It definitely takes effort, and this kind of attention is difficult to sustain for me over long periods of time. But it becomes rather entertaining, and I've gained much respect for the interviewer's art, as a good interviewer will ease into the question with plenty of time for a response to be formulated.

2. "Blanks Happen." Whether I'm stuck without something to say on a topic, or simply forget a part of my speech--I've stood in front of a group of people and had that happen. And yes, it is nerve-racking. At first. But, you get used to it, and you see other people have the same problem, and pretty soon it's just not that big of a deal. That adrenaline starts up, but it's ok, and you can deal, because you've been here before.

So, simply put, practice.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:18 PM on June 19, 2009


One last tactic. When I'm caught off guard, instead of trying to pretend everything is okay, I simply state whatever is going on. Sometimes, you may even be able to make light of the situation. It comes up when teaching quite a bit, as there is a lot of extemporaneous yapping. This can actually build your relationship with the audience if the context is right. In fact, if you have any opportunity to do some teaching, it's great for the public speaking thing.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 2:19 PM on June 19, 2009


To reiterate: This is a rare thing, and only seems to happen when I have not been expecting to speak in public and someone points to me and says ‘go!.’

You know, considering the rarity of this, it might be sufficient for you to simply assume you'll be talking in every meeting at work, no matter how large or small. Being mentally prepared for it and not having to do it is a far sight better than being called on when you're unprepared.

Also, recognize that everyone has moments like these; goodness knows I've said "I'm sorry, my mind completely blanked. Could you repeat the question so I can start it up again?" more than a few times. Or perhaps "I'm sorry, [first name], I was thinking about what you were saying and missed the question. Can you please repeat it?"
posted by davejay at 2:33 PM on June 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Watch political debates. These guys are as well rehearsed as it gets, yet they stumble and falter on tough questions until they find some part of their pre-prepared patter that they can latch on to & work in to the conversation.

The Art of Failure about "choking" by Malcolm Gladwell may also interest you. It happens to the best of 'em.

Speaking off the cuff is a skill & it can be practiced, so +1 Toastmasters. I haven't joined, but really want to soon.
posted by MesoFilter at 8:17 PM on June 19, 2009


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