Rick Perry's Debate Gaffe And What It Teaches Us About Presentation Skills (Or Lack Thereof)

I’m a huge advocate of the "Rule of Three." This presentation technique holds that a speaker can more powerfully express three items or messages than any other number of items. 

Examples can be found as far back as Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered” (“veni, vidi, vici”) and as recent as Obama inaugural speech’s  “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again.” 

The Rule of Three works like magic. It lets speakers organize messages and helps audiences remember key points.

But I’ve added an overarching rule to the Rule of Three for myself and those I coach on presentation skills: Never introduce your list of three by saying “Here are three…” 

Why? Because the brain sometimes cramps without notice. If this happens while you’re speaking with no safety net of notes, you need to quickly improvise or shift to the next point. And that’s pretty much impossible if you’ve told your audience three items are heading their way.

GOP candidate Rick Perry got a painful lesson on this in last night’s debate. He suffered what USA Today claimed “may have been the worst memory meltdown in the history of presidential debates.”

Perry starts by announcing that three governmental agencies will be eliminated if he becomes president. “Commerce, Education, and --- what’s the third one there? Let’s see…” Perry said, obviously scrambling to remember. No such luck.

A few moments later, moderator John Harwood offers Perry a second chance to name the third agency. He frantically looks down at his notes, but comes up empty-minded.  “The third one,” Perry says, “I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

I’m no Perry fan, but as a speaker, I sure feel his pain. If he had simply said, “I plan to eliminate some agencies if I’m president – for example, Commerce, Education…” And when his brain wouldn’t hand him the third one, he could have easily said, “…and perhaps other agencies I find to be unnecessary…”

But by announcing three in advance, he sealed his fate. And, according to most pundits, likely sealed the coffin on his presidential campaign.

That’s Perry’s loss but your gain if you’re a speaker or presenter. Use the Rule of Three, but never, ever tell your audience that’s what you’re about to do.
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Author Sam Harrison is a speaker, workshop leader, and writer on creativity-related topics. He is the author of IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers; IdeaSpotting: How to find your next great idea; and Zing!: Five steps and 101 tips for creativity on command. Find him at zingzone.com

[Image: Flickr user DonkeyHotey]

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2 Comments

  • Wize Adz

    I think the other issue is that you need to be well versed in the material you're presenting.

    When I speak publicly, it's ONLY about my area of expertise.  If I draw a blank, then I can go one level deeper and describe the function item whose name I can't remember.  This gaff made Perry look like he was reading a script, without understanding it -- and then he forgot his line.

    A much better solution is to understand the material you're presenting, so that flubbing a sentence is just a small mistake, rather than an incident that strongly suggests your understanding of the issues is superficial.In Perry's place, I hope I would have said "Education, Commerce, and that department whose name I can't remember that manages America's nuclear arsenal and funds research on energy policy and efficiency in the US".  Alternatively, calling on a staffer who has the answer would be acceptable: "I'm drawing a blank -- Bob Smith, which one was the 3rd department?  Oh, yeah, DOE.  If I'm elected president, I'll have smart people like Bob Smith working for me."  But, alas, I know that no presidential candidate has time to do his homework, or the gumption to sell a team of experts as part of their "brand".

    My boss does far better.  Even though he's at the opposite end of the political spectrum from me, I hereby nominate my boss for president.  Because my boss at least has the sense to bring a team with him to meetings, and the courage to call us gracefully (and to sell our expertise) when he doesn't know an answer.

  • Sam Harrison

    Thanks, Wize Adz. I was striving to stay focused on the Rule of Three topic, and that's why I didn't expand into other advice -- but your suggestions are excellent. And your comments about knowing the material you're presenting are spot-on. I understand Perry shifted away from the question asked by the moderator to talk about something totally different. If so, then another primary lesson from this episode is if you're suddenly taking the conversation/presentation in a new direction and flying solo, you best REALLY know/understand your material and how to express it. Thanks again for reading the piece and for your great comments.