What’s the biggest communication blunder you ever made before a large audience?
I still wince and squirm today when I remember mine. I was a college official reading the citation honoring a prominent alumna–with 400 audience members listening. I was supposed to say that she wrote a play about the college in 1956. Accidentally, I said she wrote the play in 1856. By placing her in a previous century, I made her appear ten decades older than she was. Odd thing was, I wasn’t aware of my goof up until a fellow administrator kidded me about it afterward. “Oh,” I answered, “that explains why everybody was laughing when I said that.” As you can guess, I apologized to the honoree afterward, though I couldn’t retract the 100-year mistake.
Possibly that memory prompts me to select the top ten communication blunders made annually–the goofs, gaffes, and glitches that brought the most embarrassment. Here’s my list of the inglorious winners for 2011, along with the lessons their mistakes offer.
1. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, Michele Bachmann urged the crowd to join her in celebrating Elvis Presley’s birthday. Thinking that was a grand applause line, she was stunned by the tepid response. Turns out that August 16 wasn’t the Rock and Roll King’s birthday. Quite the reverse, as that was the date of his death thirty-four years ago.
LESSON: Check your facts or have somebody else do that before you speak.
2. Following a gaudy, much-ballyhooed wedding ceremony, Kim Kardashian announced the end of her marriage after 72 days, citing “irreconcilable differences.”
LESSON: Every married couple faces irreconcilable differences. Wise up, Kim. Your next boyfriend and you will have them, and you’ll encounter them with all of your future husbands. Those of us who stay married to each other recognize that the irreconcilable differences are going to stay there, aren’t as devastating as we first thought, and can be tolerated. Eventually, both the husband and wife can learn to laugh at their foibles and differences.
3. Mitt Romney bet Rick Perry $10,000 that Romney didn’t support a national health care program based on the one Romney had championed in Massachusetts.
LESSON: Never flaunt your affluence. When a tenth of the U.S. is out of work, and a large percentage of those employed are pinching pennies because they don’t know when they will be downsized, disengaged, or whatever else means they’ll no longer get a paycheck, announcing your ability to make a five figure wager doesn’t keep you in touch with the men and women who are deciding which candidate understands their plight.
4. Perry, though, had his own “Oops” moment when he insisted he would eliminate three government agencies soon after his inauguration: “Commerce, Education, and. . . .er.” For 47 agonizing seconds, he tried to think of the third agency he had targeted, but couldn’t. Shortly afterward, he spoofed himself on David Letterman’s show, hoping that self-deprecating humor could repair the damage.
LESSON: Don’t promise to do more than you can even remember yourself.
5. Alec Baldwin continued to play a “Words with Friends” game on his phone, after American Airlines flight attendants asked him to shut down the device as the crew prepared for takeoff. Baldwin went nuclear, and then deplaned involuntarily after confronting attendants with impolite language. Interviewed afterward, Baldwin lamented that he was “singled out by this woman in the most unpleasant of tones.” He equated commercial airline travel to riding a “Greyhound Bus,” monitored by attendants who resembled a 1950s gym teacher on duty.
LESSON: When you’ve broken the rules, and continued to do that after several warnings, admit your mistake. Assume the blame yourself, without chiding others who are just doing their job.
6. When New York Representative Anthony Weiner sent lewd pictures of a portion of his anatomy to a woman via Twitter, as the scandal broke he proclaimed repeatedly, “Somebody hacked my account.” Turns out the early reports were an underestimate, because Weiner ultimately confessed that he had used his anatomical photographic skill to woo at least six women.
LESSON: Blaming the Internet for something you caused yourself is like blaming your car for crashing after you left a bar at 4:00 a.m.
7. Discussing a golf match between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Hank Williams Jr said the links pairing was comparable to having Adolf Hitler play 18 holes with Benjamin Netanyahu. Almost immediately, ESPN dropped Williams’ theme song from the Monday Night Football opening segment.
LESSON: Be careful about comparisons. Hitler was a bad guy,very evil. Murdered millions of people, devastated the face of Europe. Worst racist in history. Whatever your opinion of the President of the United States, you aren’t smart to mention the President in the same sentence that refers to Herr Hitler.
8. Of course, the President himself voiced a disconnect between his brain and his tongue more than once. Prime example: When meeting with a jobs council in Durham, NC, he responded to those who said that cumbersome government regulations were blocking work on America’s infrastructure–a program Obama had championed. The President answered, “Shovel-ready was not as. . uh. . .shovel-ready as we expected.”
LESSON: Humor at the wrong time will backfire horribly. Cute play on words, Mr. President. However, the council didn’t want a quip, they wanted your commitment to facilitate thousands of jobs for people eager to rejoin the employment arena.
9. Vice President Joe Biden took a 25-second nap during President Obama’s speech touting his deficit reduction plan. You Tube helped make Biden’s snoozing infamous to tens of thousands of viewers.
LESSON: You don’t even have to speak to make a major communication blunder. The experts are right–body language transmits unmistakably clear messages.
10. On the highly popular weekly TV football show College Game Day, Lee Corso became careless while talking about the game between the University of Houston and SMU. Defying the odds makers who assured a Houston win, Corso picked up an SMU microphone and shouted the “F” word (and he wasn’t referring to the cheerleader’s typical plea for the team to “Fight”).
LESSON: Be careful with your customary daily lingo. Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick on the Tonight Show for thirty years, claimed in his autobiography that he never used profanity off the air–because he was afraid that offensive words could become habitual, and he would use them during a broadcast. Rather wise advice, because our daily habits become quite transparent when the spotlight hits us and tension mounts.