Nightmare: you're speaking to a tough audience when suddenly, mid-sentence, your mind goes blank.
U.S. presidential candidate, Rick Perry, lived that fear in front of six million people during a recent TV debate.
He said he'd eliminate THREE government departments, but then couldn't name the third.
53 seconds later, he still couldn't remember. "Oops," he said.
Although I'm not voting for Mr. Perry, that has nothing to do with those 53 seconds.
Let's put his memory lapse in perspective. Otherwise, the next time you stand up to speak, you'll stress out for the wrong reasons.
1) Most speakers, even great ones, sometimes lose their train of thought. It's really no different than losing your car keys or your cell phone.
Einstein, it's widely reported, couldn't remember his own phone number. He claimed he had no plans to call himself.
The real problem for Perry was not the gaffe—his candidacy was already dead.
He'd already made too many mistakes, admitted he was a poor debater, and then debated with himself about doing more debates.
The public's perception had already hardened.
So, given his negative reputation, this last mistake seemed less like losing a train of thought, and more like misplacing an entire railroad.
Suppose Perry's gaffe had happened to someone else, someone widely perceived to be smart and knowledgeable—say, for example, Bill Clinton.
It still would have been intriguing TV, but no big deal.
A strong reputation protects you from minor errors.
2) You can prevent most brain freezes.
Perry could have avoided his with better prep, better notes (he couldn't seem to find the correct note card), and by keeping things simple.
He promised to list three things.
THREE is, ordinarily, a simple number. But don't promise three things unless you can name all three in the middle of the night, half asleep, in your pajamas.
3) When you make a mistake, your response is critical—it often trumps the mistake itself (unless YouTube or Saturday Night Live gets you first).
Let's look at Perry's response.
After the debate, he immediately sought out the press ("I stepped in it man. Yeah it was embarrassing. Of course it was.")
The next night, he appeared on CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman" to poke fun at himself.
And at the next debate, he joked about it.
These responses are more than good, they're admirable.
We're still not voting for him. But we've seen leaders who've forgotten how to own their mistakes, laugh at themselves, or admit they're human.
In terms of forgetting, that seems worse.
© Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.