Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is drawing a blank that bad? What to learn from the Arizona governor's speechless moment

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, in the only debate in the state's current election campaign, went blank for several seconds during her opening statement last week--a moment when no one was going to interrupt her--and the coverage created a small firestorm of attention.

The Associated Press coverage (from which I won't quote, since AP likes to go after and charge bloggers for doing so) goes into excruciating detail in describing the silent moment and concludes it's a disaster for Brewer.  But the Christian Science Monitor, looking back at other politicians' debate bloopers, wondered whether going silent was "really that bad," and took the view that it was poor preparation:
On Thursday, there was a chance for both candidates to make a statement at the beginning of the debate, and Brewer did not have one – either on paper, or in her head. That is flat out bad political preparation, due to either her own slip or bad work by a staff member. If it’s the latter, that staff member’s ears are probably smarting.
I asked readers of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook what they thought. Here are some of their responses:
  • Jennie Poppenger wrote, "She's human. Better to be silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. :) Collecting your thoughts can be good - in theater sometimes silence is used for dramatic effect."
  • Colleen Carey Luther said, "I think she was woefully unprepared. Nor did she listen to the questions. It was bad communication all around."
  • Andrea J. Wenger weighed in: "I think this matters more to newscasters than to anyone else. Newscasters would be mortified if this happened to them, but the rest of us can relate. This seems like a case of journalists creating the news rather than reporting it."
  • Marcy Lynne noted, "She lost her train of thought during her opening statement with notes! This women is the Arizona state Governor and is in charge of the Arizona National Guard, etc. I don't think her silence was really that bad. It was what she said when she wasn't silent that was terrifying."
  • Dana Vickers Shelley said, "She wasn't prepared. Bad staffing. It made me sad mostly."
  • Diana Bruce observed, "We have 'DID,' now ain't that a kicker!!!! If her grammar is that bad, I should be President of the United States of America."
And in that set of reactions, you're seeing a pretty typical range of views, in my experience, of the speaking mishaps of politicians--who are in a special group, and not at all typical.  We subject politicians to a high bar when it comes to eloquence, and their failures when speaking are attributed to everything from poor intelligence to poor staffing. 

If politician-speakers are in a special hothouse of attention, are there things you can learn from Jan Brewer's drawing a blank? I think so. Here are my insights for everyday speakers worried about coming up short:
  • Preparation is the key to remembering what you want to say, and I think developing a 3-point message is essential to preparation.  Focusing your remarks on three themes or points makes remembering your outline easier. And who doesn't want to make that easier?
  • If you think nerves are the cat that's got your tongue, or if you find your flow interrupted by other factors--shortness of breath, for example--you need to practice the relaxation response to get your butterflies under control.
  • If you have lots of distractions, particularly right before your talk, use my 7 bite-size ways to get speech ready. Making sure you are focused before you start will help you stay on track.
  • When you really don't know what to say,  be prepared with time-buying phrases--things you can say that add content, while buying you time to think of where you meant to head next.  You'll need to have these practiced and in your back pocket, but trust me, it's worth the practice. (They're also a great antidote to "ums.")
Want more? Sign up for the free monthly newsletter, Step Up Your Speaking, which focuses on one speaking skill or issue each month. Then join The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, a vibrant community that gets to discuss these topics before they appear on the blog; or contact me about your public speaking training and coaching needs. Most of the popular articles listed here started as threads on the Facebook page. Thanks for reading and participating!