Oops! Did I Really Say That?

A few days ago, the media played and replayed a private moment that was not so private. A “hot” microphone caught this statement by President Obama to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev: “This is my last election,” the President said. “After my election, I have more flexibility,” in reference to a missile deal. 

We have all had an “oops” in our communication with others. You may have, as my wife did, asked a woman, “When is your baby due?” when the woman was not pregnant. 

I remember at a little league baseball game saying to a white-haired man about a little boy he had brought to the game, “Is he your grandson?” 

“No,” he said, “he is my son.” 

Countless times I have mispronounced students’ names even after they have told me more than once the correct pronunciation. As I give these examples, you may be developing your own list of “oops.” 

So what can we do to avoid the “oops” in our communication time? First, think through what you are going to say before you speak. This line from a fortune cookie is good advice: “From listening comes wisdom and from speaking repentance.” All of us have spoken when we should have been quiet one sentence longer. 

Don’t talk unless you have something to add to the conversation. Listening will allow you time to think and assimilate information so when you do speak your words will have more impact. A common sense reason to listen more is that you will have less opportunity to say something you will regret. The more you talk, the greater the chances are that you will deliver an “oops.” 

Anticipate “oops” opportunities. For example, if the President had checked the microphone himself, he would have avoided his faux pas. Develop your own personal checklist. If you are delivering a speech, check yourself in the mirror just prior to speaking the make sure all clothing is in place and personal grooming is as you wish it. Don’t make it difficult for the audience to pay attention to your words because your mascara is smudged, or your tie is crooked, or there is a crumb at the corner of your mouth. 

Check the pronunciation of the name of the organization, CEO, person being honored, or any other proper noun you will use in your speech. 

Before going into a meeting, go over the agenda or talk to someone who may be more connected to the meeting content; review what will be covered. Find out who will be present and consider topics to be discussed that might offend or make people unnecessarily defensive. Ponder the best way to speak your views and offend as few as possible. 

Other Presidents have had their own gaffes involving the Russians. During a microphone check for a radio address on public schools in 1984, President Ronald Reagan decided to have a little fun. “My fellow Americans,” he said, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The audio got out to the media and, since it was near the end of the Cold War, his Soviet counterparts were not amused. 

So even as we anticipate opportunities to avoid our own “oops” moments, we can still be entertained by those of others. What can you share here about your own “oops” experiences? Do you know another Presidential example?

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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