Managing Mangled Moments

Mitt Romney: Awkward moments on the campaign trail.The word “embarrassing” pops up a lot in headlines about this year’s presidential campaign.  There are enough gaffes, awkward moments and misstatements to fill a book on “How not to get elected.” For instance, there was: Mitt Romney’s comment that he likes to fire people.

Or when a top Romney advisor accidentally spoke the unintended truth about the campaign changing direction after the primaries, resulting in the now famous Etch-A-Sketch comment. 

Who can forget Texas Governor Rick Perry forgetting the names of the three federal departments he’d eliminate.

And there was President Obama’s statement about the Supreme Court’s limit of authority, a statement that was softly retracted after confusing attempts to clarify.

So, there seems to be plenty of ways candidates, or anyone working in a public environment, can mess up. The question isn’t so much how did the faux pas happen, but how a person can recover, putting the awkward moment in the rearview mirror. 

First, get used to the notion mistakes will happen. It’s a human trait. Next, have a survival plan. Before continuing down the campaign trail, create a protocol — or triage — for assessing how serious the situation is and what remedies are best. And, develop the discipline to carry out the recovery steps quickly. 

The first part of the plan should be realizing what it is a speaker can do in the seconds after a misstep. If we can borrow a page from the world of music, then the advice of Noa Kageyama may apply. He’s a performance psychologist and Juilliard faculty member who has made a study of how musicians may recover from a mistake during a performance, What he says about playing music might be applied to delivering a speech.

“First, you must gain awareness of your current ‘oops reflex.’ Get to know how you respond to mistakes. Set up a recording device, and pick a difficult piece to play through,” Kageyama says in a blog on “Play until you make a mistake and continue playing for at least another minute or two. Stop, and write down the details of your oops reflex.”

  •      What do you say to yourself?
  •      What thoughts went through your mind?
  •      What emotions did you experience?
  •      Where did your attention go?
  •      What happened to your muscle tension?

“The key here is recovery time. How much time did you waste focusing on things that only delay your getting back on track — and in the meantime increase the likelihood of another mistake. 30 seconds? 15 seconds? 1 second? 20 milliseconds?”

“Again, the more quickly you can get your mind and body back on track, the better,” he writes. “Once you’ve gotten a clearer picture of your response to mistakes, it’s time to reprogram yourself to respond in a more effective manner.”

Following Kageyama’s admonition, a political stump speaker needs to develop the ability to size up the situation on the spot, deciding what options are best. In the case of a candidate, these options could be ignoring the mistake, clarifying the comment, using humor or apologizing if necessary.

If the mistake is serious, the same options should be reviewed after the fact as well.

So, mental conditioning for recovering from a musical performance mistake is as important as the steps –­ practice, practice, practice — taken to avoid mistakes. There seems to be some wisdom here transferable to the election season.