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Three Things to Do When You Have Your Perry "Oops" Moment

Nightmare: you're speaking to a tough audience when suddenly, mid-sentence, your mind goes blank.

Rick Perry speaks at the CNBC Republican Debate.
CNBC.com
Rick Perry speaks at the CNBC Republican Debate.

U.S. presidential candidate, Rick Perry, lived that fear in front of six million people during a recent TV debate. He said he'd eliminate THREE government departments, but then couldn't name the third.

53 seconds later, he still couldn't remember. "Oops," he said.

Although I'm not voting for Mr. Perry, that has nothing to do with those 53 seconds.

Let's put his memory lapse in perspective. Otherwise, the next time you stand up to speak, you'll stress out for the wrong reasons.

1) Most speakers, even great ones, sometimes lose their train of thought. It's really no different than losing your car keys or your cell phone.

Einstein, it's widely reported, couldn't remember his own phone number. He claimed he had no plans to call himself.

The real problem for Perry was not the gaffe—his candidacy was already dead.

He'd already made too many mistakes, admitted he was a poor debater, and then debated with himself about doing more debates.

The public's perception had already hardened.

So, given his negative reputation, this last mistake seemed less like losing a train of thought, and more like misplacing an entire railroad.

Suppose Perry's gaffe had happened to someone else, someone widely perceived to be smart and knowledgeable—say, for example, Bill Clinton.

It still would have been intriguing TV, but no big deal.

A strong reputation protects you from minor errors.

2) You can prevent most brain freezes. Perry could have avoided his with better prep, better notes (he couldn't seem to find the correct note card), and by keeping things simple.

He promised to list three things. THREE is, ordinarily, a simple number. But don't promise three things unless you can name all three in the middle of the night, half asleep, in your pajamas.

3) When you make a mistake, your response is critical— it often trumps the mistake itself (unless YouTube or Saturday Night Live gets you first).

Let's look at Perry's response.

After the debate, he immediately sought out the press ("I stepped in it man. Yeah it was embarrassing. Of course it was.")

The next night, he appeared on CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman" to poke fun at himself.

And at the next debate, he joked about it.

These responses are more than good, they're admirable.

We're still not voting for him. But we've seen leaders who've forgotten how to own their mistakes, laugh at themselves, or admit they're human.

In terms of forgetting, that seems worse.

Editor's Note:Have you ever had a brain freeze moment? Share your stories with us here in the comments section.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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