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

GOP candidate Rick Perry got a painful lesson in what not to do in front of an audience during this week’s debate, when he suffered what USA Today said may have been “the worst memory meltdown in the history of presidential debates.” His loss (of memory) is your gain when it comes to improving your presentation skills.


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.

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

[Image: Flickr user DonkeyHotey]

About the author

Sam Harrison is a popular speaker and author on creativity-related topics and presentation skills. His books include IdeaSpotting: How to Find Your Next Great Idea, IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers and Zing!: Five Steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command