This terrifying thought has crossed the mind of every public speaker. But if you are a non-native speaker delivering a presentation in English, it’s an even greater concern.

In my work with non-native speakers, I have seen presenters go blank searching for the specific English word they need to make a point. It happened this semester in an MBA class that I teach at Georgia Tech. An engaging young Chinese student froze in mid-sentence. You could see the angst on his face as he struggled for the word he wanted. He stared at the class for several awkward seconds, smiling nervously. He recovered of course, and that’s all that matters. But for a brief moment, he had lost his confidence.

So what can you do in these situations? We’ll address this question and many others in our Non-Native Speaker Workshop in February. But here’s the approach I recommend.

First, don’t panic! Keep your composure. Your audience will forgive your imperfections, particularly if they know English is not your first language. If you appear flustered, your audience will feel uncomfortable. If you remain confident, they will be confident of you.

Second, pause to collect your thoughts. If you can, say something light-hearted. It will help both you and your audience relax. For example, you might say “My brain isn’t awake yet,” or “It looks like I forgot to bring my English translator along!”

Finally, if the word doesn’t come to you, try a different approach to explain your idea. If it’s a group presentation, ask a team member to jump in and help you explain.

Of course, the best way to avoid going blank is to practice. As a non-native speaker, you need to rehearse your presentation out loud, over and over again. The reason is simple: it builds your confidence. When you practice out loud, you discover words that are likely to trip you up. You find more concise ways to handle long, awkward explanations. And you gain valuable insight from colleagues who are willing to listen and provide feedback. One word of caution: don’t memorize your presentation, because if you deviate from your script, you’re more likely to go blank! Instead, just rehearse enough to feel ready.

The next time you make a business presentation, prepare well. Practice a lot. Then if you still go blank, remind yourself that no one’s perfect. It’s how well you recover that matters.

Nancy Vason

Nancy VasonNancy has been coaching executives at Speechworks for ten years. She teaches Business Communication in the Georgia Tech MBA program. During her former career with Bellsouth, she was a sales skills instructor and wrote speeches for C-level executives. She has also worked as a performance consultant, developing training programs to improve job performance. She has written a white paper entitled “Persuasive Communication When English is Not Your First Language”.