Drawing a blank. It’s one of people’s biggest fears when it comes to speaking in public. It is painful for the audience and excruciating for the speaker. And during the Republican Presidential Debate on 9 November 2011, Rick Perry experienced it firsthand.
In case you missed the debate, this was the moment:
I’ve not been following the Republican Presidential primary that closely, but I do know that this is not the first time that Perry has made a gaffe. And it is certainly not helping his standing in the polls (though it is providing a steady supply of material for late night comedians).
So what lessons can we learn from Perry’s cringe-worthy moment?
1. Be prepared and have your key points down cold. Yes, we are all human. Yes, we all make mistakes. But … good grief, the man is running for President of the United States! And he was not talking about some esoteric issue; he was talking about shutting down three major federal government agencies. That’s huge. If you are going to take that kind of position, you have to be able to name the agencies and articulate the rationale for abolishing each one at the drop of a hat.
2. Deal with the mistake quickly. Had Perry acknowledged that he had forgotten (around 0:15), he would have minimized the damage. But like a punch-drunk boxer, he kept coming back for more and each attempt just made it worse. By the end of the clip (at 0:53) you can hear someone (another candidate or one of the moderators) say “Oh my!”. It would have been much better if Perry had said “… commerce, education and … I’m sorry but I’ve just drawn a complete blank. I’ll come back to you with the third agency in a moment.” Doing so would have minimized the time spent on the issue, it would have moved the debate along and it would have given Perry time to collect his thoughts.
3. Organize your notes. At around 0:50, Perry shuffles through his notes to find the answer but quickly gives up. Your notes must be prepared in a manner that makes them useful. They should not be handwritten; they should not be typed in small font; they should not be written in paragraphs like an essay. They should be: (a) key points with sub-points; (b) typed in large, easy-to-read font; and (c) organized in a way that allows you to scan them easily, and quickly find what you are looking for.
4. Use humour, but use it the right way. Perry tried several times to use humour to defuse the situation, but he went about it the wrong way. Instead of poking fun at himself, he ended up making fun of the substantive issues:
- (0:15) “… and the, uh, what’s the third one there? Let’s see …” Remember the issue he is discussing—closing down a federal agency. He was just too glib about the “third one” as he tried to remember it. I doubt that many federal agency employees or their families found it funny.
- (0:25 – 0:30) In response to a suggestion by Mitt Romney that the third agency was the Environmental Protection Agency: “EPA! There you go! No, I’m kidding. Hah! [Slaps table.]” If Perry was looking for a quick way to alienate environmentalists, he succeeded. Worse, the line resulted in Perry having to offer a pitiful “No sir, no sir” to the moderator who asked if he was serious.
- (0:57) “Oops.” Really? “Oops”?! It’s not like he forgot to take out the garbage. He forgot which government agency he is planning to close!
Perry should have directed the humour toward himself. He could have, at the same time, taken a good-natured shot at his rivals. (After all, this is politics.) So, for example, he could have said something along the lines of “Clearly, I’ve been spending too much time around Mitt Romney.” Or, because he drew a blank while looking at Ron Paul, he might have said, “I’m sorry, I was momentarily hypnotized by Congressman Paul’s tie.” The important thing is to take yourself lightly but treat the issues with the utmost respect.
5. Don’t just say that you can’t remember; promise to find the answer. If you don’t know the answer to a question or if you forget your point, don’t just leave it at that, like Perry did. Instead, promise to find the answer and come back to it. Of course, in a televised debate, you don’t have the luxury of phoning the office or checking your email during a coffee break. Either you remember the answer or you find it in your (well organized) notes. (See Point 3 above.) In fact, later in the debate Perry did manage that the third agency was the Department of Energy, but by then it was too late.
Do you have any thoughts on Perry’s brain freeze? Or do you have any other ideas about how to handle the situation when you forget what you wanted to say?