How To Avoid a Rick Perry Texas-sized Debate Gaffe

I cringed as I watched the online replays of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s brain freeze in this week’s CNBC debate. Every public speaker forgets points, gets sidetracked, loses their train of thought, or makes a gaffe usually by fumbling over words. What makes Rick Perry’s gaffe all the more lamentable is that he could have avoided it altogether with better public speaking and debate skill technique.

Technique #1: Respond to general questions with general answers

The candidates were asked a general question about how they would work across the aisle with Democrats. A general, I’m open to working with the other party by reaching across the aisle to find common ground and form partnerships that will benefit the American people would have been an acceptable answer.

What sunk Perry was his overconfidence, competitiveness challenging Ron Paul’s five federal agency elimination plan, poor preparation and note-taking, and anxiety.

Technique #2: Prepare beforehand with notes (mental and written)

It is always a good idea to prepare even if just mentally with a few points you want to mention before you respond to a question or make a public speech. If I have to speak publicly, I make a mental list of what I want to say and try to limit my main points to  not more than 3 items. Once I have my 3 main points, I mentally review them frequently and outline or plan what I hope will be the course of my talk. If there’s time, I’ll also write them down and perhaps jot down supporting sub-points.

Even when I prepare intensely, the actual speech rarely accords flawlessly with my mental image of it. My own anxiety or technical issues or audience reactions have a way of giving the speech a life of its own quite different from how I planned it.

Technique #3: Gloss over your mistakes

Studies have shown that more people fear public speaking than death so when you’re up there and on the spot most of the people listening or watching (unless they’re somewhat evil) really want you to do well. It’s just as painful and uncomfortable for those in the audience to witness a speaker’s public meltdown.

I’m currently listening to a lecture series and the speaker’s English could use some work and his manner of speaking is awkward and even I cringe while sitting alone in my car hoping it gets better for him even though I know the lecture has already happened.

At certain classes and lectures, I get nervous before the start, wondering how the speaker will perform. Public speaking is a type of performance art. Some speakers who I’ve come to expect good talks from immediately put those in the audience at ease. But even they have off days.

Technique #4: Start off and finish strong

Listeners tend to remember the first and the last thing you say. Never set yourself up for low audience expectations by admitting weakness in the beginning. Don’t apologize for speaking, don’t tell us you didn’t prepare, and don’t tell us that you’re nervous. Just try your best to start off and finish strong.

Many articles commenting on Rick Perry’s gaffe had the word “oops” in the title, which is the last thing Perry said at the end of his 53-second meltdown. While the beginning of his response was not that memorable, people do remember the gist, which was his inability to remember the third federal agency he claimed he wants to cut if elected president.

If there was ever a time for an interfaith prayer and unity event, we should pray that Rick Perry never makes it to the Oval Office. Although, it is stunning to see how poor public speaking technique, evidenced by both George W. Bush and Rick Perry, does not seem to be an impediment to reaching the Governor’s office in Texas.

Technique #5: Stay calm

This final technique is much easier said than done. Anxiety is a major mental stumbling block. I try to ground and center myself before I speak in public. I take a deep breath, say a silent prayer, and try to reflect on something that makes me smile.

I also find that scanning the audience with my eyes helps me relax me, I try not to let my eyes rest on any single person for more than few seconds because that may actually increase my nervousness. Although, scanning your audience for their interest and understanding or fatigue and confusion is an important feedback measure. But if I focus on a single person, I may become distracted by that one person’s reactions rather than focusing on the audience as a whole.


  1. Texas has different standards for what they value. Though I’d hate to have to elucidate what our standards are, locally…. or even if we have any….they seem to cherish the good-old-boy ethos. Jed Bartlett likely wouldn’t have done well there. Or even campaigned.

    1. As a northerner now living in what I consider the South, I try to cognizant of how that shapes my views. I used to say I didn’t want to live anywhere south of Pa or further west than Chicago. But then I spent the last decade enjoying life below the Mason-Dixon line and now am looking to move westward.

      I try not to be anti-Texas or make any Texas jokes, I have friends and family there, and go there each year for a conference but I’m struck by the differences in language and culture.

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