By Janie Van Hool, leadership and communication expert
‘Just playing Devil’s advocate here, but don’t we know all this stuff already?’
The question stings – I am pitching for some exciting work with a great new client. I’ve done some prep and I know the business. Normally, I welcome challenge, but I did not expect this question and it has taken me aback. I take a breath, ready to respond with evidence and opinion and a clearly articulated point of view. And then… nothing. The windows of my mind steam up. I have been hijacked by a muffled feeling. I can’t think of a smart response. It feels like I’ve forgotten everything I know. I feel tearful, flustered and frustrated. I just want it to be over.
Brain fog can affect all of us – the tired and under pressure, the sleep-deprived, those with chronic health conditions and those going through the menopause. It doesn’t help that brain fog seems to rear its head when we most need to be at our best – high pressured performance situations when we need to be articulate in expressing our ideas, respond confidently… and think clearly.
How can we beat it? Here are 5 ways to master the menace and nail your communication:
- Don’t test your memory under pressure – take what you need in with you. If it’s a meeting or interview, create a mind map of things you want to include or share in the conversation and set it confidently in front of you. Create it so that it draws your eye easily – colours, shapes and images that prompt your thinking at a glance. If it’s a presentation, lay out what you want to say in huge font that is double-spaced. Then colour code the sections so that you know where you are when you refer to your notes. Make key words bigger and change the font so that they stand out. Set your notes on a chair or table and wander over to look at them whenever you feel the fog descend. If you’re relaxed about referring to your notes, so will your listeners be.
- Indulge your inner catastrophizer! Have a think about the ‘what if’ i.e., ‘What if I’ve slept badly and can’t think straight?’; ‘what if I get their name wrong – or can’t remember it!’; ‘What if I know I’m doing really badly?’. Do two things here – firstly, have a plan for the action you’ll take should any of these issues occur and secondly, remember the spotlight effect – a psychological term used to describe how much we overestimate others are paying attention to us. Your perception of the impact of your brain fog may be real – it doesn’t mean that the other person has an inkling of what’s going on for you. Their attention is most likely to be on themselves, anyway.
- Be a cheerleader – not a mood hoover – for yourself. Brain fog is enervating and it’s easy to ruminate on how rubbish we feel. This self-reinforcing approach can work for us, or against us, so do yourself a favour and allow your inner dialogue to be encouraging. Instead of thinking ‘I slept terribly last night. How am I going to get through today?’, try ‘I’ve managed 4 hours sleep, which is better than nothing. I’ll need to manage my energy today, so I’ll make a plan and stick with it… and maybe a 10-minute power nap after lunch.’
- Change the way you use time. Make sure you adjust your diary so that you are not running late anywhere – especially to an interview, important meeting or presentation. Being overloaded with additional pressures caused by rushing will fog your mind. Create space to centre yourself, do some breathing exercises, hydrate and focus. Set yourself up for success.
- Don’t play a role – bring yourself. Not everyone wants to share their personal challenges with others, but there is great power in being honest about what’s going on for you. How much you share is up to you, but if you feel able to express any vulnerability, you will create warmth and trust in your listeners. That connection is likely to reap rewards far more than the pressure to ‘be perfect’ in your communication. If you’re experiencing brain fog – go ahead and say so! You’ll liberate others to do the same!
Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to my pitch? You’ll be pleased to know I took my own medicine. I said ‘Ha! Just when I need it, my mind’s gone blank!’ and the panel laughed, sympathetically. I had notes and took a moment to refer to them; I gave myself an encouraging ‘You can answer this!’; I took a pause and a breath. Then, I looked the challenger straight in the eye and responded – it wasn’t perfect, but it was the best I could do in the circumstances. ‘Good answer.’ she said. ‘We’re looking forward to working with you on this.’.
About the author
Janie Van Hool is a prominent communication expert specialising in leadership development programmes and executive coaching. Janie teaches the art of communication, presence and impact to professionals in a range of organisations, from the construction industry to investment banking. As Founder and Director of VoicePresence, Janie has worked as a workshop facilitator and 1:1 coach for more than 20 years, enhancing the communication skills of executives and creating listening company cultures. Janie is the acclaimed author of The Listening Shift: Transform your organization by listening to your people and helping your people listen to you (Practical Inspiration, 2021). The book explores the power of listening, which often flies under the radar when it comes to communication in business. It is the ultimate guide to learning how to cut through the noise and listen expertly. The Listening Shift draws on the learning and experiences she has gained as a RADA-trained classical actress, a voice teacher (she has an MA in Voice Studies), from her research into Performance Psychology at Edinburgh University, and from her years volunteering as a listener for Samaritans in the UK.