Rick Perry’s Brain Lock: When You Can’t Quite Remember That Word

People have been calling Rick Perry’s inability to remember that he wants to close down the Department of Energy a “brain freeze.” To me a brain freeze is what you get when you drink your slurpee to fast. What happened to Perry is more like a brain lock– when you just can’t locate what you want to say– and they can happen to anyone. I find that I even have trouble with certain words. “Wisteria” is one of them, even though it’s one of my favorite plants. Sometimes the word just isn’t there.

So even though I’m hardly a Perry supporter I think he’s getting a raw deal on this one. We all have these kinds of moments under pressure. There’s even a scientific explanation for it in the story here. The key is to try to get past the moment without stumbling on it for to long or letting it fluster you. Which is easier to do if you’re not participating in a televised debate.

Going on David Letterman and making fun of himself seems like just the right strategy to me, too. His apparent ease and his timing with the jokes surprised me– it’s a much better performance than his role in the debates would lead you to expect. But that’s probably why everyone seems to have piled on this one incident. It seems like Perry has had to explain his mistakes and endure a starring role on Saturday Night Live after each of his debates and speeches. At this point it seems more like he’s doing a routine rather than running a campaign for president.


Awkward Pauses: The Value of “Um, Er and Uh” in Public Speaking

Last year I did several talks where one of the most important points I wanted to make  is that our desire to be effective public speakers is undermined when we make it our goal to be perfect public speakers. Everyone has something they could do better but focusing on these issues too much can make us anxious and undermine our performance. You want to be aware of the things you can do better and make an effort to implement them whenever you can.  But don’t feel like any little mistake is going to ruin your whole presentation.

The example I always used was my habit of inserting an “um” into pauses while I’m talking. I’m usually not even aware of it while I’m speaking, but I’ve listened to recordings of myself enough to hear that it’s an issue. It’s not something I do a lot, and I probably do it less than most people. But I’d really prefer not to do it at all. Still, I wasn’t going to torture myself over it.

“You don’t want to have a tic that so bad that it’s distracting,” I’d tell my audiences.  “I knew an executive once who said “uh” so often that people would stop listening to what he actually had to say and start counting ‘uh’s for sport. But it’s not the end of the world if you say “um” every now and then.”

And then I’d pause and say “um”. Every time I gave the talk. I have different versions of the presentation on audio and video and I say “um” every time.

The first time I didn’t even realize what had happened, why the audience was laughing. Of course this could have been humiliating, but it was actually a perfect illustration of what I was talking about. I didn’t let it bother me and the audience didn’t think less of me. In fact, they seemed to think it was hilarious.

So, as a frequent “um”-er, I was happy to see my experience validated in this article from Slate. They’ve gathered up research (I love how Slate does these articles that use science to disprove common perceptions) to show that disfluencies like “um” and “ah” won’t really ruin your speech. In fact, they suggest that using filler words or syllables can actually improve your listeners’ ability to recall what you say and help them see you as more genuine. Being too polished, it seems, can make you sound “slick” or scripted.

Much better to sound like yourself than a salesperson.  Even if that includes some, er, awkward pauses.