Thursday, November 10, 2011

Perry Lives Every Public Speaker's Nightmare

Rick Perry’s debate gaffe last night is every public speaker’s nightmare: what do you do when what you want to say flies out of your head faster than the post-Halloween candy stash disappears?

I tell my students that at times of panic, to pause, breathe, and ask yourself “What am I trying to communicate with this audience?”

The word “communicate,” with its connotations of civility and collaboration, always calms me down. So, after a pause which always seems longer to me than it does to the audience, what comes out of my mouth is, “I guess what I’m trying to communicate is such-and-such…” I find my brain perks up and the words come tumbling out.

If Perry had followed my approach, he might have been able to say, “Well, the third agency will come to me in a moment. The bigger point I’m trying to communicate here is that we need to eliminate wasteful government agencies.”

That wouldn’t have been a total save, but it would have kept the debate moving forward. Memory experts tell us that thinking about something else is the way to remember something, not staying frozen on the missing thought, especially while millions of Americans are watching with varying degrees of empathetic discomfort, hostile delight, or some combination of both.

One thing Perry did right was to forthrightly acknowledge his mistake: “Good thing I had my boots on, because I stepped in something deep just then,” he said, according to the New York Times.

It’s cold comfort for Rick Perry, but anxious public speakers should also keep in mind that this latest slip-up comes on top of a series of misstatements and foot-in-mouth moments.

Ultimately it’s the cumulative effect of poor speaking abilities that is turning off potential Perry supporters—not this one lone gaffe.