Right up until I saw Marco Rubio reach up and wipe the dripping sweat off his temple, I was barely paying attention. At that moment, though, I perked up. Suddenly, I was very interested – not for the politics, but for the potential public speaking Do’s and Don‘ts that I could use with my students and clients. I was like a kid in a candy shop. Little did I know just how many lessons he would provide in 18 minutes.
Now that the whole world has seen Rubio’s slow spiral toward what I now call “parched desperation,” I can bypass the play-by-play and jump right to the key takeaways. Yes, he was sweating, and yes, he had such a severe case of dry-mouth that his lips stopped working properly, but you have to give him credit for getting through it all without stammering or stumbling. Even with the aid of a teleprompter, that kind of stress can reduce the best of speakers to a puddle of mush.
I felt his discomfort with each passing minute. When he reached for the bottle of water, I yelled at the TV. But, the most important thing to do after one of these experiences is to resist the pull of self-criticism and focus on what went right. Every one of us can learn from his experience. Here is my take on those lessons:
- Maintain your pace. Rubio managed to keep his timing and flow – including pauses and emphasizing words – even as he was trying to keep the sweat from running into his eyes.
- Focus on the content. When stress starts to get the best of you, the most helpful trick you can pull out of your bag is to focus on your purpose and your key message. Take it sentence by sentence.
- Acknowledge the situation with humor. Since most of us will never deal with such high stakes pressure as the official response to the State of the Union Address, we have the option of simply admitting to our audience that we are sweating and even have a little fun with it. Psychologists call this technique “pattern interrupt.” You get to divert the laser focus your audience is aiming at you and redirect them to your key message. Humor is the great equalizer.
- Take a drink before the situation gets worse. Many political pundits have said that Rubio should have just forged ahead rather than reaching for the water bottle. In the real world, audiences will forgive you for the radio silence while you take a sip.
If Rubio were my client, I would give him 24 hours to ruminate over what went wrong and then I would help him move on. Staying stuck in regret or remorse helps no one. I would also encourage him to get back up on the horse and ride another day.