By Nick Morgan
Like many Americans, I was riveted by debater Rick Perry’s apparent brain freeze as he attempted to talk about the three cabinet departments he would kill if elected president. As a speech coach, I sympathize, having seen clients do the same thing many times – and done it myself.
What I recommend is having a minimal set of notes as a safety net so that if your mind does go blank, you’ve got something to fall back on. Knowing that the safety net is there will usually help the brain relax and therefore avoid the problem in the first place. The presidential debaters get paper and pens; Rick should scribble down a few key ideas to help him relax and get through those endless Republican debates with no more flubs.
What really happened to Perry? We’ve all been there, when a combination of stress, fatigue, and lack of focus makes us forget that name, that date, or that trivia question. Adrenaline plays havoc with our normal waking mind, and in an effort to keep us alive, shuts down many of our ordinary cranial activities. We’re focused on getting ready to escape danger, not calmly detailing lists of 3 items.
That fight-or-flight response is something we’ve evolved to help us in crises; unfortunately the modern era is full of moments that invoke the adrenaline response but aren’t really suited to actual fighting or fleeing. (Neither of those two options was available to Rick on TV.)
The result can be embarrassing – but usually not as embarrassing as Perry’s because the stakes are not as high.
Perry and his handlers came back gamely with an appearance on David Letterman’s show designed to push us all to laugh the whole thing off. Unfortunately, the net result will be to laugh the whole Rick Perry campaign off in the long run.
Here’s the truth. Perry’s campaign is over. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Why? Two reasons. First, this whole episode feeds the developing Perry narrative, that he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. That will kill his campaign no matter how much we are willing to laugh at a specific mistake, or how amusing the comeback attempt.
Second, most people’s perception of the presidency is that it’s serious business. You can’t self-deprecate your way to the White House. When it comes to pulling the voting lever, Americans opt for someone they think can actually handle the job.
But the Perry kerfuffle does raise a larger question: are debates a good way to test the mettle of a presidential candidate? After all, once you’re in the White House, it’s not about remembering stuff moment to moment – you’ve got aides for that.
I think the short answer is that, as Winston Churchill said of democracies, they’re the worst possible system – except for all the others. Highly imperfect, debates are nonetheless the only glimpse most of us get of presidential candidates in something approaching a real, unscripted moment. Hence their fascination – and the importance of moments like Rick Perry’s.
About the Author:
Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication, and the good and bad speakers of the day. His passion is to connect the latest brain research with timeless insights into persuasive speaking in order to further our understanding of how people connect with one another. For more information on his company, visit www.publicwords.com