The Gaffe: A Trap Waiting for All Speakers

The word "gaffe" seems to be in print in increasing numbers. When you participate in political campaigns or when any person speaks frequently and is followed by the press, the possibility for gaffes is great. A gaffe is an embarrassing mistake you make in public. Another definition is a blatant mistake or misjudgment, or a social or diplomatic blunder.

History has a litany of gaffes. George Romney, father of Mitt, was a leading contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination until September 4, 1967, when he told a Detroit reporter that he had been "brainwashed" by American generals into supporting the Vietnam War effort. His candidacy never recovered.

On the campaign trail in Beaverton, Oregon, in May, 2008, then Senator Obama said, "Over the last 15 months, we've traveled to every corner of the United States. I've now been in 57 states?  I think one left to go." This definitely fit the "blatant mistake" definition of gaffe.

Most recently, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, debating in Rochester, Michigan, on November 9 declared that he planned to eliminate three government agencies in Washington. But when he began to explain, he could only think of two and after nearly a minute went by he had to say, "Sorry. Oops."  This lapse on national television did not help his candidacy.

What can you do to avoid the gaffe? Certainly you could just not speak in public. But that is not a practical solution. The key is appropriate preparation of what you plan to say—even if you do not know the questions or context you might be in.

Prepare yourself physically. Get enough sleep the night before you speak and eat healthy foods. The campaign trail, for example, is exhausting and can hinder the ability to think clearly. In the l952 gubernatorial campaign of Frank Clement of Tennessee, he spoke as many as 16 times a day in the last days of the campaign. Exhaustion was inevitable. JFK in the 1960 campaign spoke so often he had chronic laryngitis and had to seek speech therapy help and skip a few crucial campaign days to recover.

Think about questions that may be asked of you and how you will answer them. If you know your subject well and how it relates to current situations, you can anticipate many of the questions so you won't be caught off guard. According to a book by Dan Rather, The Camera Never Blinks, prior to a press conference President Kennedy would call in his White House staff to grill him on questions the press would probably ask. Thus he was rarely blindsided when speaking to the public.

Don't be afraid to pause a moment or two when asked a question. Those 2 or 3 seconds give you valuable time to consider your response. Don't just blurt out anything that comes to mind as soon as the question is asked. What you say cannot be taken back, so the few seconds to think can save you embarrassment and a loss of credibility.

Finally, don't talk too much. Keep your comments short and concise. Don't take a minute to give an opinion when you could say the same information is ten seconds. The longer you elaborate the more possibilities you have for committing a gaffe. As my mother-in-law used to say, "Don't tell all you know." 

The gaffe is inevitable if you speak frequently and over a long period of time. Whatever technique you incorporate, at the foundation of our approach should be the reminder from Robert Benchley, "Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing."

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively and coaches local executives. Visit his site to read other valuable articles on effective speaking and listening.

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

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