Lessons from public speaking implosions

Those who do not learn from speech flubs are doomed to repeat them. What takeaways can communicators draw from these famous disasters?

Public speaking in the digital age can be unforgiving.

That’s all the more reason for speechwriters and speakers to take lessons from the worst, as well as the best.

Whether you are a speaker, a speechwriter or both, bear in mind these cautionary tales and the lessons you can learn from them:

1. Rick Perry’s Republican primary debate flub

Former Gov. Rick Perry famously promised to eliminate three government agencies, two of which he managed to remember. The moment went down in public-speaking lore. If it’s any silver lining for Perry, he’s now heads the Department of Energy, the one he forgot he wanted to eliminate.

Speakers: Always have a backup plan. The former governor would have benefitted from some notes.

Writers: When you introduce a list, you’re committing your speaker to remembering it. While three bullets shouldn’t be a handful, finding other ways to deliver your point could keep a forgetful speaker out of a bind.

2. Michael Bay’s presentation at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show

Michael Bay’s brief moment in the spotlight featured a broken teleprompter, an awkward exchange with Joe Stinziano, Samsung’s executive vice president, and the sentence “I create visual worlds that are so beyond everyone’s life experiences, and Hollywood is a place that creates a viewer escape.” After that, Bay apologized, blamed the teleprompter, promised to wing it, apologized some more and then left the stage.

Bay learned the hard way that improvisation is difficult when your speech is a flowery ode to your industry and yourself, rather than a genuine sentiment.

Speakers: Don’t memorize your speech so rigidly that a forgotten sentence, or busted teleprompter, knocks you off track.

For writers: Major elements of the speech shouldn’t hinge on a particular word or phrase that the speaker must utter for the rest of the speech to make sense—especially if that word or phrase is hard to remember.

3. Joe Biden’s “big f’ing” encounter with a hot mic

Joe Biden is notoriously gaffe-prone, but this one took place at a moment that was historic on its own. The hot mic captured him whispering in President Obama’s ear that the passage of health care reform was a “big f-ing deal.”

Speakers: Beware of hot mics—or use them to your advantage.

Writers: Authenticity is everything. For fans of the Affordable Care Act, the moment was like an R-rated victory cry from Biden, not usually visible to the general public.

4. Larry King suggests that “Seinfeld” was cancelled

Larry King asked Jerry Seinfeld, creator and star of Seinfeld, whether his show was cancelled, or whether Seinfeld ended it voluntarily. Seinfeld became irate at the longtime interviewer’s lack of preparation, which led to a minor meltdown of his own.

Speakers: If you make a mistake, own up to it. The incident could have been reduced to a soundbite if King had simply said that he misspoke.

Writers: Do your research. No one wants to embarrass their principal with misinformation.

5. Gary Johnson’s “Gary Johnson” moment

Gary Johnson had a second Gary Johnson moment in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, in which Chris Matthews asked him to name his favorite world leader. When he was unable to do so, he joked that he was having “an Aleppo moment,” referring to his previous failure to recognize the city of Aleppo by name. In cracking the joke, Johnson solidified his stance on the list of presidential candidates who defeated themselves.

Speakers: Preparation is key. If you don’t know the answer, at least have a quip to save the moment, as President George W. Bush did with a similar question. His response to the interviewer’s question about whether he could name the President of Chechnya (“No, can you?”) wasn’t ideal, but at least it saved the moment.

Writers: Self-deprecation has its limits. Some topics—a speakers appearance, or their well-known habits—are meant to be lambasted. Referring to a failure that is essential to a point you are trying to make is a bridge too far.

Which implosions would you add?

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