Rick Perry Overcompensates

Leave the Acting to Actors

Ever since Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the race to become the Republican presidential candidate in the 2012 election, he’s learned the importance of presentation skills—the hard way. Right after he announced his candidacy in mid-August, he soared to a double digit lead in the public opinion polls, ahead of all the previously-announced candidates. But as you read earlier, after a poor showing in a debate among all the candidates in September, and another poor showing in another debate in October, Mr. Perry’s ratings did a double digit drop to fall behind the front runners, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.

The criticism of Mr. Perry’s debate appearances—even from other Republicans—was primarily about his halting delivery and lack of energy. NBC’s Saturday Night Live parodied his behavior in a skit in which actor Alex Baldwin did an impression of Mr. Perry bumbling and yawning.

In response, Mr. Perry shifted gears for the next debate and went after Mitt Romney, his chief opponent, with a vengeance, hurling charges at him with aggressive body language and voice. Mr. Romney responded with equal aggression that devolved into a virtual food fight.

Feeling his oats, Mr. Perry continued the animated delivery style in his media appearances and stump speeches. In one particular speech—to a group of conservative supporters in the key primary state of New Hampshire—he let out all the stops, mugging, giggling, winking, and gesturing broadly. An eight-minute video digest of his performance went viral on the Internet with over a million and a quarter views, followed by countless blogs, tweets, and another parody on Saturday Night Live that attributed his dramatic change to alcohol, drugs, or medications.

The video was perfect fodder for Jon Stewart’s satire. He commented, “Best case scenario, that dude’s hammered. Worst case scenario, that is Perry sober and every time we’ve seen him previously, he’s been hammered.” Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post was more balanced, questioning whether Mr. Perry’s speech was “Playful or plain odd.” In my opinion, it was the former. Mr. Perry was not under the influence, but was overcompensating in response to the earlier criticism.

His shift in delivery style was reminiscent of Al Gore’s reversals in his debates with George W. Bush during the 2000 election campaign. In the first of their encounters, Mr. Gore repeatedly expressed disdain for Mr. Bush with frowns, eye rolls, head shakes, and sighs, but this arrogant behavior immediately boomeranged. The television producers had a camera isolated on Mr. Gore for reaction shots, and their directors edited the videotape of his expressions into a rapid-cut sequence. When the news broadcasts ran the sequence, public and professional criticism rained down on the vice president. In response, Mr. Gore made a sharp about face and, in the second debate, came out like a lamb. During the 90 minutes, Mr. Gore expressed agreement with his opponent seven times on major issues. (You can see this “sigh” sequence in my DVD, In the Line of Fire.)

The lesson for Mr. Gore, Mr. Perry, and you is to be natural, be yourself. Don’t try to perform when you present. Instead, consider every presentation a series of person-to-person conversations.

As Mr. Perry said in response to all the ado about the video, “I’ve probably given 1,000 speeches. There are some that have been probably boring, some that have been animated, some that have been in between.”

Be in between. Be yourself. Leave the acting to actors.

This post also appears on Forbes.com.