Why Rick Perry is a Warning to Us All

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London Ltd

You might think that poor old Rick Perry - his hopes now sinking fast as he’s painted as the most phenomenally forgetful US presidential candidate of all time - is really unusual. After all how hard is it to remember a list of just three things?

Perry was going really well on CNBC's Republican presidential candidate debate when the curse of the TV rule of three struck him. Trust me it really isn't that unusual. As a TV interviewer and media trainer for many years I know that it can often be a recipe for disaster - or a debate debacle as the US media are calling it - to go for a list of three when you're being interviewed on TV. And people who go for a list of four or five points are definitely setting themselves up for a fall.

As that famous sage Anonymous once said: "You never know how blank your mind can go until you're on live TV." It can happen to anyone.  In my experience, many people giving media interviews will say they have three points to make and say 'Firstly' and then 'B' and then stop after two points.

If an interviewer wants to land a killer blow, they just very politely and helpfully say " And your third point? " It's sounds kindly, but it's a killer because they know that, with the stresses of the TV lights bearing down on them, the interviewee has completely forgotten their third point.

That's why often, in the interests of keeping the flow of the interview, the interviewer will ignore the missing third point and just keep the interview going. But these things are always a tougher game for politicians. For them there is no mercy.

After all you would normally would expect a politician, and especially a man who wants to be President of the United States, to be able to recall a list of three names and not go blank - at all - ever. Rick Perry has come out fighting with a message that 'Everybody makes mistakes-- - If you're looking for the slickest debater, it's not me etc..etc..

But the damage is done - and I think he's not just undone by the memory lapse, but by the fact that he didn't deal with it professionally once it had happened.

"I will tell you that's it's three agencies of Government when I get there that are gone" he said confidently " . Then he continued: "Commerce, Education and the .. um what's the third one there let's see..." Then he made another mistake - he was in a pit and he didn't stopped digging. He asked his opponent what the third point was - they suggested the EPA - perhaps ironically. The interviewer pressed him. Perry floundered on, said it's not the EPA and just collapsed on air.

What should he have done? Obviously first he should simply always remember what his policies are and have them at his fingertips. Having failed on that he should think on his feet and not go on for nearly a minute digging himself deeper and deeper into a black hole so that even the dimmest US voter is thinking " I really don't want this guy with his hand on any nuclear button." (Or something more direct and unprintable.)

There are a number of basic simple rules we media trainers follow when advising people on how to give effective interviews on TV and one of them is 'When you're in a hole, stop digging.' Perry should have One - seen the blankness coming. Two - sidestepped it very fast by rushing on to the big issue here is too many bureaucrats - always a winner with most American voters - and voters in most other countries too, Three - kept going on this and then chucked in a controversial idea that the interviewer would have to ask him about and which would speed him on leaving the uncompleted  three points way behind.

However he couldn't do all this without being on top of his ideas and the phrases he wanted to use to get them across to the public. The bottom line is he sounded unprepared and when he came unstuck he couldn’t get himself back on track. Preparation is the key to successful TV interviews. Having something to say that you know you’ve thought through and are secure with is more than half the battle

Or to put it in another folksy American way that Rick Perry and other American presidential hopefuls might care to remember: If God wanted everyone to look stupid on TV he wouldn't have invented media trainers.

Published 14 November 2011