Brewer Debate Freeze

Written by Brad Phillips on September 2, 2010 – 12:23 pm

During a gubernatorial debate in Arizona last night, Governor Jan Brewer froze when asked to make her opening statement.

In fairness, it’s not unusual for people to go blank when the camera’s red light comes on. Stress triggers our body’s fight or flight instinct, resulting in an adrenaline surge that makes clear thinking difficult.

But Gov. Brewer doesn’t deserve that much fairness here, as her communications failure signals a lack of preparation. 

Gov. Brewer clearly had notes on the desk. Had she written three bullets in large print on a file card for her opening statement (e.g. immigration reform, block Obama policies, job creation), she could have simply looked down, remembered her next point, and continued.

When spokespersons freeze, their natural instinct too often is to think, “Oh, God. I don’t know what to say next. Say something. Oh, God, this is bad.” Ms. Brewer clearly fell victim to that instinct, and took 13 seconds to get back on track.

Instead, she would have been better served by thinking, “Okay, I’m lost here. Calmly look down, get my next point, look back up, and deliver it as if nothing is wrong.” That tactic would have helped her find her way much more quickly, and the 3-5 second gap wouldn’t have been nearly as devastating.

Ms. Brewer’s gaffe is reminscent of one made by Jeanine Pirro, a candidate who briefly ran for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2005. From New York Magazine

Her most humiliating moment came right at the beginning, during her announcement: the now-famous 32 seconds of silence when she tried to find a misplaced page in her speech. It was the kind of horrifying who-am-I-and-why-am-I-here mishap that anyone who speaks in public has nightmares about. Suddenly, Pirro became a punch line.

Will Gov. Brewer become a punch line now? Yes, at least for a few days. The bigger question is whether it will irrevocably damage her political career (as it did for Ms. Pirro), or whether she will be able to recover. She can start helping her chances by immediately displaying a sense of humor about the gaffe.

UPDATE 9:30PM: Upon further review of the video, it appears that Ms. Brewer made the mistake of trying to memorize her opening. Terrible idea. When a speaker forgets a single word of their memorized script, they tend to freeze just like Ms. Brewer did. Instead, speakers would be well advised to simply remember three “trigger words” and speak (mostly) extemporaneously instead.

Related: Jan Brewer’s Staff Failure

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

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    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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