Arizona Governor Jan Brewer fell victim on national television last week to a very bad case of stage fright. You really have to see it to believe it:
Now that is a redefinition of the concept of “the pregnant pause.” That’s not a pause at all, it’s a meltdown. It’s the same kind of stage fright we felt when we were onstage at the school play when we were 12 years old.
Stage fright is something we’ve all experienced. Thoughts converge, and suddenly we lose our grounding, our equilibrium. We know people are looking at us, waiting for us to say something, and the mind freezes. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience in which you helplessly watch yourself flounder and flail in front of an audience that’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Fight or flight. Panic.
Stage fright is the scourge of every type of performer. And if you appear before the media, make no mistake, you’re a performer (and no, that doesn’t mean actor). Chances are you’ll experience stage fright for yourself at some point, if only fleetingly.
Some pre-interview jitters are a good thing. We want to be on our toes and alert, ready for any type of question. But no one, obviously, wants to freeze up and become the potential butt of endless jokes, like my poor governor.
What could Jan Brewer have done to handle her stage fright? My first suggestion is, unsurprisingly, preparation. When you are super-prepared and have rehearsed and role-played what you’re going to say, it becomes much harder to have a Jan Brewer moment. Before any interview, and especially live TV, you need to know your material the same way a Broadway actor does. Brewer appeared painfully unprepared.
But what could she have done once the stage fright began to turn it around? My own suggestion would be to make a joke out of it, and actually talk about it for a moment, which would have put her at ease and helped her gather her thoughts. Something like, “Excuse me, but I lost my train of thought for a second. Bear with me a moment.” Instead she seemed to just get more and more nervous. So my suggestion while you’re in the throes of serious stage fright is to acknowledge it and make light of it. That will help you get past it and move on.
While were discussing my governor, allow me to point out one more absolutely terrible run-in she had with the media that very same week following a debate with her opponent. I can practically promise that media trainers all over the country will be including this clip in their trainings as a textbook study of how not to interact with reporters.
Go about 50 seconds into the interview to see one of the most gobsmackingly bad attempts to “stay on message” ever caught on tape:
Brewer is like a machine that spits out hollow talking points while completely, 200 percent ignoring a totally legitimate question. This goes back to Media Training 101 and the art of bridging. There’s no bridge! All there is is her tired message repeated again and again, and finally there’s the piece de resistance – she simply walks away. Afterward she announced she would not participate in any more debates.
Everything about this is so wrong on so many levels. But lets look at how Brewer answered the question about whether she’d take back her disproven claim that headless bodies had been found in Arizona. She acts as if the question hadn’t been asked, and instantly goes into automatic pilot about how her opponent has no plan to govern the state. And it happens again, and again, and again.
Governor Brewer, there’s an easy way out, but unfortunately it involves some acknowledgment of the question. This is how I’d instruct her to handle it next time. First, acknowledge the question. Maybe say something about how you had believed the story of the bodies to be true at the time, and only recently learned it was a rumor, and then use that acknowledgment to go into your key message about your opponent. Something like this:
“Based on the latest information, I may have been mistaken in my reference to the bodies discovered in the desert, and I apologize for any confusion that may have caused. But that’s not really what we were here to debate about tonight. This debate was about a plan for governing our state, and my opponent’s plan simply doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny…”
There were many ways she could have handled it, and that’s just one suggestion. However, she seems to have looked at the options and chosen the very worst ones, including talking down to the reporters and walking away, exuding contempt.
Governor, I’m right here in Phoenix. Call me.