From The Straits Times    |

Communicating effectively requires clarity of thought and the ability to remember and deliver your message with confidence. However, either due to age, anxiety, lack of sleep, Covid, or biological changes associated with ageing, there are instances when brain fog and blanking out can hinder your ability to recall information and stay focused during communication.

Many of us worry about not being as clear and concise as we can be or used to be.  Thankfully, there are techniques to help overcome these foggy, forgetful challenges and ensure more successful communication.

Mindset is the first area to address when brain fog and forgetfulness strike. 

Matt Abrahams is a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, podcast host, and author of several books of effective communication

Find your way back

In the event of a blank-out, it is essential to remind yourself that your audience only knows what you tell them, not what you intended to tell them. In these moments, reminding yourself of this fact can reduce pressure and allow you to find your way back. 

Avoid negative self-talk

Additionally, try to avoid negative self-talk or comments that diminish your credibility. We can easily and quickly switch to disparaging ourselves internally or even externally. There is no need. 

Remind yourself that you have value to offer and forgetting is not the end of the world. If you feel that an apology is necessary, avoid acknowledging your age, preparation, or biological issues. Rather comment that sometimes you get so passionate about a topic that you get ahead of yourself. Most audiences are forgiving and appreciate pauses that allow them to absorb the content.

 
 
 
 
 
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Go back to go forward

When faced with a blank-out moment, it can be disorienting and cause panic. However, one effective technique is to go back to go forward. By recalling what was just said and repeating it, you give yourself a moment to regain your composure and get back on track. This technique works similarly to how people search for lost keys by retracing their steps and jogging their memory. Remember, repetition is not necessarily a negative aspect of communication. In fact, it can help highlight key points and aid in memory retention. By repeating important information in different ways, you can make it more comprehensible and memorable for your audience, while helping yourself gain clarity and get back on track.

Buy time by asking questions

To buy yourself time and gather your thoughts, posing generic questions that are relevant to the context can be an effective strategy. This allows you to shift the focus momentarily away from yourself and onto the audience. By asking questions such as “How might what I just covered apply to your work?” or “How does this work we just discussed impact and relate to our overall objectives?”, you engage the audience in active thinking while giving yourself a brief moment to collect your thoughts and regain composure. I do this all the time when I teach.

Because I teach the same class multiple times a year and I am getting older, I sometimes can’t remember if I have covered a particular topic already. When this happens, I simply pause and ask my students: “Think for a moment…how can you use what we just discussed in your own life?” My students don’t think, “Oh, he just forgot.”  They actually contemplate my question and thank me for my desire to have them apply what they learn.  All during this, I get a little space to remember and focus. Preparing generic questions in advance of potential speaking situations can be helpful in staying composed and maintaining your clarity and flow of communication.

 
 
 
 
 
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Add structure to your content

One powerful technique to enhance memory and focus is to provide a meaningful structure to your content. Neuroscientists share that structured information is retained more reliably and clearly compared to unstructured information. Structures provide processing fluency, which refers to the ease with which we can access, assimilate, and remember information. Examples of useful presentation structures include:

  • Past-Present-Future
  • Comparison-Contrast-Conclusion
  • Cause-Effect-Result
  • Problem-Solution-Benefit

By structuring your content, you provide yourself with a roadmap that aids memory recall. Even if you forget specific details, you can refer back to the general structure to guide your communication. This reduces the chances of getting lost during your presentation. Moreover, from the audience’s perspective, a clear structure acts as a plan, setting their expectations and allowing them to build mental models of the information being presented.

These mental models aid in their memory retention and understanding of your message, and these structures help you with your remembering too. If you are trying to persuade someone and you leverage the Problem-Solution-Benefit structure, you have a map you can follow.  If you get lost by forgetting, you can always return to the map: “I just discussed the problem, and I know solution always comes next.”

In conclusion, brain fog and blanking out during communication can be challenging, but with the right techniques, they can be overcome. By adjusting your mindset, going back to go forward, posing generic questions, and focusing on the structure of your content, you can enhance reduce your anxiety of forgetting and bolster your ability to be concise and clear.

Matt Abrahams is a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot (Pan Macmillan £20) and Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, and the host of Think Fast, Talk Smart The Podcast.