How to Survive Stage-Floor Brain Lock

Brain lock during public speaking If you took any delight in movie director Michael Bay’s recent key-note meltdown you’ve probably never experienced the pain and humiliation of stage-floor brain lock.

Brain lock is a rare and debilitating disorder that occurs when one’s train of thought is completely derailed by an unexpected turn in the tracks, usually in middle of a speech. It is not to be confused with the awkward moment of silence that follows a teleprompter malfunction, clinically known as the Obama-mum phenomenon.

In fact, rather than being rendered speechless by a lack of an original thought, brain-lock sufferers are actually bombarded by countless thoughts shoving and bouncing off each other in a futile effort to become the first words out of the mouth. In Bay’s case, this neurological logjam set off a system-wide alarm that triggered, among many other reactions, the deployment of the automated “charm offensive” and a mustering of the crew on the fight-or-flight deck.

Ordinarily, these two self-preservation systems aren’t activated simultaneously. (There’s actually a locking mechanism built into newer brains that makes this virtually impossible.) But in those rare instances that it does happen, the dissonance between these two very different survival mechanisms actually affects the host body. Once this happens, recovery is extremely unlikely and total, system-wide humiliation is almost a certainty.

You can actually see it happen to Bay. His charm offensive is immediately hampered by a voice tremor, involuntary deep breathing, and a rapidly drying mouth. Meanwhile his flight off the stage is literally thrown into a tail spin as the back—in a selfless effort to save the face—struggles to turn itself to the audience while the legs remain locked facing the audience, hell bent on completing the charm offensive.

Ultimately Bay’s head literally dragged his body off the stage, while his automated charm offensive repeated “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” in a monotone not unlike that of the dying HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was not pretty.

How do I know he went through all this? Because it happened to me.

Just as I was finishing up speech recently, I realized I was coming in for a landing way ahead of schedule. Like Michael Bay, I tried to ad lib some charming dialogue to chew up the clock, but my voice had other plans.

Meanwhile, my brain had gone into full escape mode, desperately shaking the door knobs of every possible escape route. (Do I fake a seizure as I have occasionally asked my daughters to do to get us out of church? Can I set off the fire alarm without anyone noticing? How about a coughing fit?)

By then it was too late; my body was starting to deconstruct. Like clockwork, blood rushed to my face to signal to the other primates in the room that I was, indeed, quite embarrassed. This rush of blood pushed every rational thought out of my head and every drop of saliva out of my mouth, sending most of it to my armpits where it poured out as flop sweat. Sensing that we were in full-blown flight mode, my bladder was about to release its cargo when I was finally able to get myself back the pilot’s seat.

And it was then that I learned the cure to this horrible situation: I stopped everything, took off my jacket, loosened my tie, started rolling up my sleeves and said to the audience, “Sorry folks, but I just started having a panic attack. Let me tell you why …”

And they listened, and they nodded, and they silently thanked God it was me and not them. It’s interesting to note that my brush with reputational death actually brought us closer to each other. While it certainly wasn’t my best speech, a lot of people came up to me, grasped my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I enjoyed your presentation,” while their eyes were saying, “Damn, I thought we lost you there, boy. Good to have you back.”

So tuck this helpful tip in your back pocket. But remember: as with any effective prophylactic, you only want to use it once.