How To Avoid Your Rick Perry Moment

Everyone’s had a Rick Perry moment.  Brain-freeze. Gaffe. Senior Moment. Fail. Um, uh h, um….hang on… no I can’t think. Maybe we haven’t had it on television while running for president of the United Stated, but it has happened to all of us. It’s our own fear of failure (on a much smaller scale) that causes us not to step forward when asked to volunteer, to mumble rather than speak clearly, to white-knuckle podiums, to hide behind PowerPoint slides or use them as a teleprompter.

November 9th, the ninth Republican Party presidential debate was held at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan

Perry’s horrific gaffe is known in neuroscience circles as retrieval failure, or cue-dependent forgetting. It’s what happens when we are trying to remember something, we think it’s on the tip of our tongue, and we just can’t reach it, no matter how hard we try. As David Diamond, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of South Florida, put it to the Washington Post,“When we forget words, when we forget names, it is new information that has just not established strong links in our brain,” Diamond said. “We are doing so much now, we’re multitasking perhaps at a higher degree than ever before,” Diamond said. “We get into work, and we’re handling e-mails, we’re going to all the Web sites, we’re processing more information now than ever before. We’re asking more of our brains than evolution ever prepared us to handle. So every now and then we just drop the ball.”

This fear of dropping the ball – our own personal, on stage Rick Perry moment, is something all presenters carry around. It drives some of the worst PowerPoint habits: Packing a slide with text, reading from slides, and generally engaging more with our content than the audience.

So what’s the answer? First, remember that there is no one right way to present. Each of us communicates differently. Based in learning and educational theory, we have different learning patterns that drive how we communicate. What we are more comfortable doing. These patterns fall into 6 types. INVENTOR, COACH, COUNSELOR, STORYTELLER, TEACHER and COORDINATOR. Each of these types has natural strengths in presenting, and some, shall we say weaknesses. PowerPoint is there to shore up those weaknesses.

If you’re an INVENTOR (which I am, and Perry possibly is), you probably wouldn’t even want run for president, and you aren’t comfortable with public speaking. You are good at connecting ideas and building logical sequences, but you’re much more comfortable working through a Q&A. You know you don’t do well holding large quantities of information in your head.  You can get stuck searching for just the right word (sound familiar) and worry about forgetting something important. For you PowerPoint is a memory board. It contains just enough information to nudge you along. The cues that stop cue-dependent forgetting.

It’s more likely that Perry is a COACH. Coaches are energetic and personable speakers,  who are great at connecting and engaging people by doing, role playing,  and showing.  You can spot them easily before a big presentation, practicing by pacing up and down, notes in hand, mouthing key points to themselves as they try to commit them to memory. They are much better in person than remote, and can be very dry over the phone, where they don’t have people or emotional cues to react to.  They are at their best when passionate about the topic. Coaches lose passion and enthusiasm with a low energy audience.  They tend to talk more than listen and may move too quickly for the audience. Cues are important for coaches too. They don’t structure well, so notes to hand or visible that remind them more of the structure of what they want to say than the actual content, are very useful for them.

I will write more on the 6 Presenter types, their strengths and weaknesses and how you can use PowerPoint to help. For now, and for Rick Perry, its handy to remember that we all need cues. How we get them is different for each of us. Look at how Perry sailed through Letterman’s top 10 list.


I finally posted more about the 6 Types of Presenter.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. tessf | November 16, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    I sooo wanted this to be about how to avoid any kind of moments with Gov Perry; instead, I end up being impressed by your calm, cool demeanor in talking about this guy. We should all be so wise.

    Thanks. :)

    • Gavin | November 16, 2011 at 5:56 pm

      Thank you!

  2. Siobhan Jacobs | November 17, 2011 at 10:06 am

    I have retrieval failures all the time…I need the power of powerpoint.

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