Rick Perry's "Oops" Moment and Five Lessons We Can Learn

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.

Rick Perry
Rick Perry

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

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 Rick Perry acknowledged that he had forgotten, 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 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 0:45, Rick 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 be:

  • Key points, not long sentences or paragraphs
  • Typed in large font so that you can easily read them
  • Organized in a way that allows you to scan them and quickly find what you are looking for

4. Use humour 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:

  • (0:11) “… 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.
  • (0:21 – 0:26) 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.
  • (0:53) “Oops!” Really? “Oops”?! It’s not like he forgot to take out the garbage. He forgot which government agency he is planning to close!

Rick 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. 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 Rick 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.

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    1. Thanks, Florian. A pause looks so much more dignified than stammering or stuttering over the answer. As it was live TV, the moderators would likely not have let Perry get away with pausing for long. If they interrupted him while he was thinking and he still did not know the answer, then he could have simply said so and promised to come back with it.

  1. Good Points about Perry’s Brain Freeze, John.
    One more suggestion: Use a Mind Map with visuals rather than text notes. Notes can be hard to read, especially when nervous. (They get fuzzy for some of us!)
    Those three agencies could have been represented as:
    1. Commerce – A Shopping Cart with the word COMMERCE across it.
    2. Education – A Graduation Cap.
    3. Energy – A Lighted Lightbulb, perhaps with a Lightening Bolt next to it.
    Thanks for the post, John!

      1. Thanks John for bringing this to light and your useful observations. A small slip and yet if not handled well the effects can be disastrous. Easy to say afterwards, but having gone through the experience at least once does motivate one to brush up on improvisation skills.
        Commerce, Energy and….then close my mouth!

  2. Ufff… I don’t know if anything can fix this. Saying you are going to change the lives of thousands of people, and then not knowing the name of the department… communicates what the guy cares about. The problem might not be one of speaking skills, but one of what the guy spends his time, energy, discipline caring about… (probably himself and his goal of being “president”, not the USA and its goals, or the broader government and its goals).

    1. Thanks, Conor. Though I don’t know enough about Perry to make a definitive statement, based on what I saw (and I watched more of the debate than just that clip) I fear that your assessment might be right. As I said in the post, he should have known the three departments cold and the reasons for abolishing each. But for me the giveaway was how he handled the slip; he was just too glib about it, given the seriousness of what he was saying-

    1. Thanks, Amy. I appreciate the comment.
      You are spot on about the training and practice. As the saying goes, “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
      Cheers back!

  3. Thanks John for your comment on my blog!
    I’ve been a fan of yours after watching your Toastmasters Humorous Speech on Youtube.
    Thanks for sharing. You have a lot of excellent, and detailed explanations on your post.
    I’m looking forward to learning more from you.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Akash. You have a nice blog going. I just ReTweeted your post on the 25 tips from 300 public speakers. Nice stuff you have there. I’ll be back for more for sure.

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