In Nov. 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effectively ended after he went blank for 47 excruciatingly painful seconds during a debate.
Although that moment became rather infamous (I rated it the worst gaffe of the 2012 election), 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 worse for Jeanine Pirro, a candidate who briefly ran for Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat in 2005, but quickly withdrew after misplacing a page of her announcement speech and going silent for 32 seconds.
Most of us have suffered a similar—if less high-profile—brain freeze. What should you do if you’re caught in an interview, debate or speech and lose your place?
First, after a few seconds, fight the temptation to continue trying to think of the thought that eluded you. It’s gone.
Second, consider transitioning to surer ground—confidently—by saying something more general about the 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 is 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 you do it with confidence, the audience may not even notice your inelegance.
Fourth, in some settings, the best response is to simply admit the gaffe and laugh. That’s what Florida Senator Marco Rubio did when he misplaced a page of his speech last year. The national press barely noticed.
Fifth, don’t memorize your script. Few things do more to throw off speakers than memorizing their speeches and then forgetting a word along the way. It’s far preferable to speak from bullet-point memory triggers than to rely on memory alone.
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this article originally appeared.