In November 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effectively ended after he went blank during a debate for an excruciatingly painful 47 seconds.
Although that moment became rather infamous (I rated it the worst gaffe of Election 2012), Mr. Perry is far from alone.
Arizona governor Jan Brewer suffered a similar fate during a gubernatorial debate in 2010, when she went blank for 13 seconds. It was even worse for Jeanine Pirro, a candidate who briefly ran for Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat in 2005 but who quickly withdrew after misplacing a page of her announcement speech and going silent for 32 seconds.
The truth is that most of us have suffered a similar—if less high profile—brain freeze. So what should you do if you’re caught in an interview, debate, or speech, and you lose your place?
First, after a few seconds, fight the temptation to continue trying to think of the thought that’s eluded your grasp. It’s gone.
Second, consider transitioning to surer ground—confidently—by saying something more general about the specific topic. For example, Governor Perry could have said:
“You know, I’m forgetting the name of the third department and will put that up on our website, but the more important point is that we need to shrink the size of government. We simply can’t continue to afford a federal bureaucracy that is doing the job states are supposed to be doing.”
That wouldn’t have been poetry, and Mr. Perry would have still suffered bad press. But a few seconds of awkwardness would have been vastly preferable to 47 seconds of pain.
Third, if you’ve gone really blank, transition to anything else, even if it’s not directly related to the topic. You can use a line such as, “But the key point I want to make today is…” Again, that’s not perfect, but if done with confidence, the audience may not even notice your inelegance.
Fourth, in some settings, the best approach is simply to admit the gaffe and laugh at your imperfection. That’s what Florida Senator Marco Rubio did when he misplaced a page of his speech last year, and it was barely noticed by the national press.
Fifth, don’t memorize your script beforehand! Little does more to throw off speakers than when they attempt to memorize their speeches and then forget a word along the way. It’s far preferable to deliver your words with bullet points in front of you to serve as memory triggers instead of relying on memory alone.
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A version of this post originally ran on Political Wire.