On the way back home, however, my mind was back to full thinking mode. I thought about my options. What should I do now? Give up public speaking, in case this happened again? Never compete again? Laugh it off and forget about it? Blame it on someone else? Naturally, I decided to blame it on someone else. As soon as I arrived home, I marched to the lounge and told Mark it had been his fault because he chose to stay home to watch the football instead of coming to the contest to support me.
That didn’t work. He laughed at me. Afterwards, however, he gave me one of those pieces of advice that are infinitely wise in their simplicity.
‘When you couldn't think of your next line, why didn't you improvise?’
‘Improvise?’ I asked, perplexed. Improvising had simply not occurred to me at the time.
‘You know, make something up,’ he explained, in case I didn't know what improvising meant. ‘Say some gobbledygook to buy time while the precise words came back to you.’
He then explained that he had been in a similar situation once. As a young lad, he was the lead singer in a band, and one night he was in the middle of a song when he forgot the lyrics - in front of a room full of people. Instead of stopping, he kept on singing whatever nonsense came into his head until he remembered the proper lyrics, and nobody noticed what happened. Admittedly, he was singing in a tavern, and most people were drunk, so they wouldn’t had noticed if the roof caved in, but the principle still applied. I could have improvised.
Interestingly enough, the topic of my speech was my uncanny ability to get lost, any time, anywhere, in anyone’s company, whether walking or driving. There were a great number of things I could have said to fill the blank. I could have spoken about being ‘lost for words’, having ‘lost the plot’ or ‘lost my train of thought’… But because this had never happened to me before, I hadn't known how to react.
This has to be one of a public speaker’s worst fears: to freeze on the stage in front of an audience – not to mention during a contest. Throughout those endless seconds, up on the stage, I could see that many of the spectators related to my plight; in fact I had seen some of them experience a similar memory lapse in previous contests, when they were up on the stage and I was in the audience.
That night I faced one of my worst fears and discovered that it wasn’t nearly as bad, embarrassing or traumatic as I imagined it would be. I learnt that the moment will pass, and you will survive it, and you will be much better equipped the next time you try.
The second thing I learnt was that sometimes life doesn’t go according to the script, and in those cases, you must be ready to improvise. ‘Waffling’ your way out of a situation is not ideal, but it will have a better result than standing there looking like a stunned deer.
And finally, I learnt that even if you trip and fall at the start of a race, you are already ahead of the countless others who chose not to enter the race in the first place. Participating in a contest or a race is not about winning, but about ‘giving it a go’, challenging yourself outside of your comfort zone, enjoying the experience and growing in the process.