Better Public Speaking by Failing Faster

Governor Perry may be struggling to recover from his “brain freeze” memory lapse at the CNBC debate, but the real misstep was his infringement of the public speaking ultimate responsibility to take care of an audience. Public speaking gone awry inflicts real pain on an audience, pain that can be mitigated or altogether avoided by the speaker’s equivalent of “fail fast“.

Speakers Promise to Deliver Value

Every speaker seeks to compensate an audience’s payment of attention by providing a return of interest. Whether to inform, entertain, or inspire, speakers seek to fulfill the bargain through their words and delivery. Humor pleases us, insight enlightens us. A confident speaker inspires confidence and a passionate speaker, passion.

This contract is most evident when broken. Unfunny or obvious commentary bores and annoys us for wasting our time. Similarly, a speaker experiencing the pain of embarrassment or nerves inflicts the discomfort on the audience. In fact, scientists have proven this in the laboratory.

Audiences Feel Pain

We are such empathetic creatures that

“by attending to someone else performing an action, and even by thinking about them doing so–even, in fact, by thinking about certain sorts of people at all–we become objectively, measurably, more like them, in how we behave, think and feel.” (from Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World)

So when governor Perry, in his words, “stepped in it,” he made us literally cringe with one of the most feared pains in our society.

Perry’s Misstep Blow by Blow

Let’s take a closer look at the official transcript to see what happened:

GOV. PERRY: And I will tell you, it’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the — what’s the third one there — let’s see. (Laughter.)

What probably happened is a universal hazard of public speaking. A speaker constantly battles the effects of the fight or flight defense reaction. The inability to think clearly is a result of the body’s preparing for physical danger by re-routing blood to the large muscle groups and releasing powerful hormones.

While it’s vital to prepare for the increased difficulty in recalling information by instilling mnemonic back-ups to key points, there’s little fault that can reasonably be attributed at this junction. Stuff happens.

To mitigate missteps, a speaker’s first and best defense is to quickly resume providing the audience value. The sooner the performer can get back to bringing value, the happier the audience is. Great speakers are very good at this, an indication of how difficult it is.

Moving on is made exponentially difficult by a tremendous increase of the fight or flight reaction. Embarrassment thrusts the speaker into more social danger and the body responds by ratcheting up its defenses of immediate physical activity. Fighting or flighting. Not thinking clearly.

The governor had a tough time letting go of his initial gaff. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the joke he cracked when Ron Paul suggested the third agency was the EPA.

REP. PAUL: You need five.

GOV. PERRY: Oh, five. OK.

REP. PAUL: Make it five.

GOV. PERRY: OK. So Commerce, Education and — the — (pause) —

MR. ROMNEY: EPA?

GOV. PERRY: EPA. There you go. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

This is quick thinking. Involving his competitor right away demonstrates awareness, agility and humor. However, the larger issue remained and one of the moderators had to step in to clarify:

MR: HARWOOD: Seriously? Is EPA the one you were talking about?

GOV. PERRY: No, sir. No, sir. We were talking about the agencies of government — EPA needs to be rebuilt. There’s no doubt about that.

MR. HARWOOD: But you can’t — but you can’t name the third one?

The Governor is put in a tough spot by being asked a direct question about what he forgot. In addition to having a good memory, speakers are respected for their honesty and responsiveness. Avoiding the question would therefore be a further breach of audience care-taking. However, attempting to remember is equally unhelpful:

MR. HARWOOD: But you can’t — but you can’t name the third one?

GOV. PERRY: The third agency of government.

MR. HARWOOD: Yes.

GOV. PERRY: I would do away with the Education, the Commerce and — let’s see — I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.

A Series of Speaker Strategies (And the Right One)

The governor attempts several meritorious strategies to remedy the situation. He repeats the question (“The third agency of government”) and the first part of his answer to buy himself time (“I would do away with the Education, the Commerce and…”). He employs humor to de-escalate the situation (“Oops.”). Eventually, he owns up to not remembering.

Any of these strategies may have saved him. The cumulative effect however, was to make the misstep more obvious. The strongest and surest strategy to get back to delivering audience value would have been something like this:

GOV. PERRY:

And I will tell you, it’s three agencies of government, when Iget there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the — what’s the third one there — let’s see. (Laughter.)

REP. PAUL: You need five.

GOV. PERRY: Oh, five. OK.

REP. PAUL: Make it five.

GOV. PERRY: OK. So Commerce, Education and — the — (pause) —

MR. ROMNEY: EPA?

GOV. PERRY: EPA. There you go. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

MS. BARTIROMO: Let’s go —

MR: HARWOOD: Seriously? Is EPA the one you were talking about?

GOV. PERRY: No, sir. No, sir. We were talking about theagencies of government — EPA needs to be rebuilt. There’s no doubt about that.

MR. HARWOOD: But you can’t — but you can’t name the third one?

GOV. PERRY: The third agency of government.

MR. HARWOOD: Yes.

GOV. PERRY: I would do away with the Education, the Commerce and — let’s see I can’t [remember]. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.

Recommendations

You can’t predict change, but you can foster a comfort with things not going the way you envisioned. Prepare like things will go right, but practice for when they will go wrong. Recognize the difference between the two and move on.

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