How to Survive a “Perry” Bad Public Speaking Misstep

OopsRick Perry’s debate “oops” on Wednesday night deserves sympathy, even if you’re no fan of his politics. Who hasn’t lost a thought before? And the painful truth is that the more pressure you put on yourself to remember a forgotten point, the less likely it will be to come. Anxiety is a mortal enemy to thinking calmly, or even coherently. By the time Perry relaxed and remembered “Department of Energy,” the damage was done.

This wouldn’t have happened had Perry been allowed to use notes. Where’s Sarah Palin’s palm when you need it? If you know you have trouble remembering a key phrase or point, write it down. The purpose of notes is to help you remember your key points, nothing more.

But the biggest “oops” actually has nothing to do with Perry’s memory; it has to do with how he handled — or in this case, mishandled — the embarrassing moment. Instead of distancing himself from his mental hiccup immediately, he allowed it to linger for nearly a minute. If that seemed like a long time to you, imagine how it felt to him!

In your public speaking settings — which are much more forgiving than presidential debates — you’re allowed to make mistakes, even forget key points. Acknowledge it and MOVE ON. A simple comment like “You know, I’m having a little mental lapse. I’ll get that point out later” is fine. As I said, it’s happened to the best of us — and the audience knows that. That’s why their first reaction during the debate was to laugh.

But here’s what NOT to do:

  • Apologize. You don’t “owe” anyone your point. It’s a gift from you to them.
  • Keep trying to come up with it. It’s gone. Move on.
  • Say “Oops.” You might as well say “Oopsy.”

What does it mean to “move on”? At any point in your speech, especially when you’ve gone off the reservation, you can always use one of the following lines to get back on track:

  • “Here’s the bottom line . . . .”
  • “This is my point. . . .”
  • “If there’s one thing I want you to leave with, it’s this. . . .”

Remember, if your audience leaves with your point in their heads, you WIN. What happens if they only remember your big gaffe (possibly because you drew attention to it)? Just ask Rick “I Once Had a Pretty Good Shot At This Thing” Perry.

[Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr]

About this Gun

Joel Schwartzberg

Joel Schwartzberg

won the U.S. National Championship in After-Dinner Speaking in 1990 and was ranked among the top ten overall public speakers in America. After coaching at U. Penn and Seton Hall, he was inducted into the National Forensic Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Joel has been teaching public speaking since 2006, while holding down executive digital positions with Nickelodeon, Time Inc., and PBS. A nationally-published personal essayist, Joel authored the award-winning essay collection The 40-Year-Old Version. Follow @joeljest.