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It happens all too often.  You’re sailing along in your presentation, conveying important ideas, convincing your audience to share your perspective, possibly even closing the deal when, out of nowhere, you say something that stops the momentum like a 12-foot truck driving under a 10-foot bridge.

It happened to Chris Matthews in the wee hours of the morning on election night.  He had been on the air for about ten hours straight. He was adding color commentary to the realization that Obama was the winner without needing Florida’s electoral votes.  The pundits were trying to explain why that was possible when for weeks all we heard was that the election would turn on Ohio and Florida.  Nearing the 3:00 hour, Chris said, “I’m so glad we had that storm last week…”  When someone off camera reacted, Chris added, “No, politically I should say. Not in terms of hurting people. The storm brought in possibilities for good politics.”

Reactions to these remarks were swift and far-reaching.  Luckily, he only had to wait 15 hours to get back in front of the camera to apologize.  And he did a great job. You can see for yourself.

This example offers three important tips on how speakers can minimize the foot-in-mouth damage.

1. Own it – fully.  “I said something not just stupid, but wrong.”  There is no misinterpreting those words. He’s sharing that he gets it and it was his own fault.  No hemming, no hawing.

2. Explain and then redirect.  Avoid using any language that implies it’s not your fault.  Instead, use the strategy Chris used in this apology.  He explained that he was too deep into political thinking to notice how his words were being received, but he didn’t say it in a way that was an excuse.  Rather, it was a central part of the overall mea culpa.  He then went on to reframe his comments in a caring and supportive tone. And perhaps most important:

3. Be genuine.  As he’s nearing the end, Chris seems to get a bit choked up. He conveys his remorse in the most authentic way.  And we feel it.  There is no BS meter going off.  To that I say, “Bravo!”

I hope it never happens to you, but if it does, keep these tips nearby and don’t let too much time slip by before you take action to resolve the problem.

– Barbara

Barbara Roche