Top 10 Communication Blunders of 2011

We all make mistakes while speaking. I do, for sure.

What’s the biggest communication blunder you ever made before a large audience?

I still wince and squirm today when I remember mine. I was a college official reading the citation honoring a prominent alumna–with 400 audience members listening. I was supposed to say that she wrote a play about the college in 1956. Accidentally, I said she wrote the play in 1856. By placing her in a previous century, I made her appear ten decades older than she was. Odd thing was, I wasn’t aware of my goof up until a fellow administrator kidded me about it afterward. “Oh,” I answered, “that explains why everybody was laughing when I said that.” As you can guess, I apologized to the honoree afterward, though I couldn’t retract the 100-year mistake.

Possibly that memory prompts me to select the top ten communication blunders made annually–the goofs, gaffes, and glitches that brought the most embarrassment. Here’s my list of the inglorious winners for 2011, along with the lessons their mistakes offer.

1. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, Michele Bachmann urged the crowd to join her in celebrating Elvis Presley’s birthday. Thinking that was a grand applause line, she was stunned by the tepid response. Turns out that August 16 wasn’t the Rock and Roll King’s birthday. Quite the reverse, as that was the date of his death thirty-four years ago.

LESSON: Check your facts or have somebody else do that before you speak.

2. Following a gaudy, much-ballyhooed wedding ceremony, Kim Kardashian announced the end of her marriage after 72 days, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

LESSON: Every married couple faces irreconcilable differences. Wise up, Kim. Your next boyfriend and you will have them, and you’ll encounter them with all of your future husbands. Those of us who stay married to each other recognize that the irreconcilable differences are going to stay there, aren’t as devastating as we first thought, and can be tolerated. Eventually, both the husband and wife can learn to laugh at their foibles and differences.

3. Mitt Romney bet Rick Perry $10,000 that Romney didn’t support a national health care program based on the one Romney had championed in Massachusetts.

LESSON: Never flaunt your affluence. When a tenth of the U.S. is out of work, and a large percentage of those employed are pinching pennies because they don’t know when they will be downsized, disengaged, or whatever else means they’ll no longer get a paycheck, announcing your ability to make a five figure wager doesn’t keep you in touch with the men and women who are deciding which candidate understands their plight.

4. Perry, though, had his own “Oops” moment when he insisted he would eliminate three government agencies soon after his inauguration: “Commerce, Education, and. . . .er.” For 47 agonizing seconds, he tried to think of the third agency he had targeted, but couldn’t. Shortly afterward, he spoofed himself on David Letterman’s show, hoping that self-deprecating humor could repair the damage.

LESSON: Don’t promise to do more than you can even remember yourself.

5. Alec Baldwin continued to play a “Words with Friends” game on his phone, after American Airlines flight attendants asked him to shut down the device as the crew prepared for takeoff. Baldwin went nuclear, and then deplaned involuntarily after confronting attendants with impolite language. Interviewed afterward, Baldwin lamented that he was “singled out by this woman in the most unpleasant of tones.” He equated commercial airline travel to riding a “Greyhound Bus,” monitored by attendants who resembled a 1950s gym teacher on duty.

LESSON: When you’ve broken the rules, and continued to do that after several warnings, admit your mistake. Assume the blame yourself, without chiding others who are just doing their job.

6. When New York Representative Anthony Weiner sent lewd pictures of a portion of his anatomy to a woman via Twitter, as the scandal broke he proclaimed repeatedly, “Somebody hacked my account.” Turns out the early reports were an underestimate, because Weiner ultimately confessed that he had used his anatomical photographic skill to woo at least six women.

LESSON: Blaming the Internet for something you caused yourself is like blaming your car for crashing after you left a bar at 4:00 a.m.

7. Discussing a golf match between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Hank Williams Jr said the links pairing was comparable to having Adolf Hitler play 18 holes with Benjamin Netanyahu. Almost immediately, ESPN dropped Williams’ theme song from the Monday Night Football opening segment.

LESSON: Be careful about comparisons. Hitler was a bad guy,very evil. Murdered millions of people, devastated the face of Europe. Worst racist in history. Whatever your opinion of the President of the United States, you aren’t smart to mention the President in the same sentence that refers to Herr Hitler.

8. Of course, the President himself voiced a disconnect between his brain and his tongue more than once. Prime example: When meeting with a jobs council in Durham, NC, he responded to those who said that cumbersome government regulations were blocking work on America’s infrastructure–a program Obama had championed. The President answered, “Shovel-ready was not as. . uh. . .shovel-ready as we expected.”

LESSON: Humor at the wrong time will backfire horribly. Cute play on words, Mr. President. However, the council didn’t want a quip, they wanted your commitment to facilitate thousands of jobs for people eager to rejoin the employment arena.

9. Vice President Joe Biden took a 25-second nap during President Obama’s speech touting his deficit reduction plan. You Tube helped make Biden’s snoozing infamous to tens of thousands of viewers.

LESSON: You don’t even have to speak to make a major communication blunder. The experts are right–body language transmits unmistakably clear messages.

10. On the highly popular weekly TV football show College Game Day, Lee Corso became careless while talking about the game between the University of Houston and SMU. Defying the odds makers who assured a Houston win, Corso picked up an SMU microphone and shouted the “F” word (and he wasn’t referring to the cheerleader’s typical plea for the team to “Fight”).

LESSON: Be careful with your customary daily lingo. Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick on the Tonight Show for thirty years, claimed in his autobiography that he never used profanity off the air–because he was afraid that offensive words could become habitual, and he would use them during a broadcast. Rather wise advice, because our daily habits become quite transparent when the spotlight hits us and tension mounts.

Those are my Top 10 communication blunders for 2011, with the lessons they provide. Have some you want to add? Respond, please, through the comments section.

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Christmas Story from “Storybug” Karen Chace

Storyteller Karen Chace in Action

While she refers to herself whimsically as “Storybug,” Karen Chace–based in East Freetown, MA–is quite seriously dedicated to her storytelling profession. That’s why I turned to her when I wanted a Christmas story to share with my blog readers. You’ll find this story heartwarming, with a grand message.

NOTE: This story is a public domain European folktale found in Czechoslovak Fairy Tales by Parker Fillmore.

There were once three brothers whose only possession was a pear tree. They took turns guarding it. That is to say while two of them went to work the third stayed at home to see that no harm came to the pear tree.

Now it happened that an Angel from heaven was sent down to test the hearts of the three brothers. The Angel took the form of a beggar and approaching the pear tree on a day when the oldest brother was guarding it, he held out his hand and said:

“In heaven’s name, brother, give me a ripe pear.”

The oldest brother at once handed him a pear, saying:

“This one I can give you because it is mine, but none of the others because they belong to my brothers.”

The Angel thanked him and departed.

The next day when the second brother was on guard he returned in the same guise and again begged the charity of a ripe pear.

“Take this one,” the second brother said. “It is mine and I can give it away. I can’t give away any of the others because they belong to my brothers.”

The Angel thanked the second brother and departed.

The third day he had exactly the same experience with the youngest brother.

On the following day the Angel, in the guise of a monk, came to the brothers’ house very early while they were still all at home.

“My sons,” he said, “come with me and perhaps I can find you something better to do than guard a single pear tree.”

The brothers agreed and they all started out together. After walking some time they came to the banks of a broad deep river.

“My son,” the Angel said, addressing the oldest brother, “if I were to grant you one wish, what you ask?”

“I’d be happy,” the oldest brother said, “if all this water was turned into wine and belonged to me.”

The Angel lifted his staff and made the sign of the cross and lo! the water became wine from great wine-presses. At once numbers of casks appeared and men filling them and rolling them about. A huge industry sprang up with sheds and storehouses and wagons and men running hither and thither and addressing the oldest brother respectfully as “Master!”

“You have your wish,” the Angel said. “See that you do not forget God’s poor now that you are rich. Farewell.”

So they left the oldest brother in the midst of his wine and went on farther until they came to a broad field where flocks of pigeons were feeding.

“If I were to grant you one wish,” the Angel said to the second brother, “what would you ask?”

“I’d be happy, father, if all the pigeons in this field were turned to sheep and belonged to me.”

The Angel lifted his staff, made the sign of the cross, and lo! the field was covered with sheep. Sheds appeared and houses and women, some of them milking the ewes and others skimming the milk and making cheeses. In one place men were busy preparing meat for the market and in another cleaning wool. And all of them as they came and went spoke respectfully to the second brother and called him, “Master!”

“You have your wish,” the Angel said. “Stay here and enjoy prosperity and see that you do not forget God’s poor!”

Then he and the youngest brother went on their way.

“Now, my son,” the Angel said, “you, too, may make one wish.”

“I want but one thing, father. I pray heaven to grant me a truly pious wife. That is my only wish.”

“A truly pious wife!” the Angel cried. “My boy, you have asked the hardest thing of all! Why, there are only three truly pious women in all the world! Two of them are already married and the third is a princess who is being sought in marriage at this very moment by two kings! However, your brothers have received their wishes and you must have yours, too. Let us go at once to the father of this virtuous princess and present your suit.”

So just as they were they trudged to the city where the princess lived and presented themselves at the palace looking shabby and travel-stained.

The king received them and when he heard their mission he looked at them in amazement.

“This makes three suitors for my daughter’s hand! Two kings and now this young man all on the same day! How am I going to decide among them?”

“Let heaven decide!” the Angel said. “Cut three branches of grape-vine and let the princess mark each branch with the name of a different suitor. Then let her plant the three branches to-night in the garden and to-morrow do you give her in marriage to the man whose branch has blossomed during the night and by morning is covered with ripe clusters of grapes.”

The king and the two other suitors agreed to this and the princess named and planted three branches of grape-vine. In the morning two of the branches were bare and dry, but the third, the one which was marked with the name of the youngest brother, was covered with green leaves and ripe clusters of grapes. The king accepted heaven’s ruling and at once led his daughter to church where he had her married to the stranger and sent her off with his blessing.

The Angel led the young couple to a forest and left them there.

A year went by and the Angel was sent back to earth to see how the three brothers were faring. Assuming the form of an old beggar, he went to the oldest brother who was busy among his wine-presses and begged the charity of a cup of wine.

“Be off with you, you old vagabond!” the oldest brother shouted angrily. “If I gave a cup of wine to every beggar that comes along I’d soon be a beggar myself!”

The Angel lifted his staff, made the sign of the cross, and lo! the wine and all the wine-presses disappeared and in their place flowed a broad deep river.

“In your prosperity you have forgotten God’s poor,” the Angel said. “Go back to your pear tree.”

Then the Angel went to the second brother who was busy in his dairy.

“Brother,” the Angel said, “in heaven’s name, I pray you, give me a morsel of cheese.”

“A morsel of cheese, you lazy good-for-nothing!” the second brother cried. “Be off with you or I’ll call the dogs!”

The Angel lifted his staff, made the sign of the cross, and lo! the sheep and the dairy and all the busy laborers disappeared and he and the second brother were standing there alone in a field where flocks of pigeons were feeding.

“In your prosperity you have forgotten God’s poor,” the Angel said. “Go back to your pear tree!”

Then the Angel made his way to the forest where he had left the youngest brother and his wife. He found them in great poverty living in a mean little hut.

“God be with you!” said the Angel still in the guise of an old beggar. “I pray you in heaven’s name give me shelter for the night and a bite of supper.”

“We are poor ourselves,” the youngest brother said.

“But come in, you are welcome to share what we have.”

They put the old beggar to rest at the most comfortable place beside the fire and the wife set three places for the evening meal. They were so poor that the loaf that was baking in the oven was not made of grain ground at the mill but of pounded bark gathered from the trees.

“Alas,” the wife murmured to herself, “it shames me that we have no real bread to put before our guest.”

Imagine then her surprise when she opened the oven and saw a browned loaf of wheaten bread.

“God be praised!” she cried.

She drew a pitcher of water at the spring but when she began pouring it into the cups she found to her joy that it was changed to wine.

“In your happiness,” the Angel said, “you have not forgotten God’s poor and God will reward you!”

He raised his staff, made the sign of the cross, and lo! the mean little hut disappeared and in its place arose a stately palace full of riches and beautiful things. Servants passed hither and thither and addressed the poor man respectfully as “My lord!” and his wife as “My lady!”

The old beggar arose and as he went he blessed them both, saying:

“God gives you these riches and they will be yours to enjoy so long as you share them with others.”

They must have remembered the Angel’s words for all their lives long they were happy and prosperous.

Visit Karen’s Web site, where you will find valuable resources about stories. Read her blog, and enter your e-mail address in the slot to sign up for her newsletter. Use her contact information to talk with her about a professional presentation to your conference/convention. Her site link:

As the host of “The Communication Corner” on WBCX-FM, I was privileged to interview Karen about storytelling, a profession she has mastered. This link gives you access to the full 60-minute interview:

Karen will welcome your response to this story. Go to the end of the blog entry in the section below and click NO COMMENTS if none have been made, or if comments have been made click 1 comment, 2 comments, or whatever the comments button says. The comments section will appear.


You’ll find beneficial articles, podcasts, and videos–designed to help you generate “attention, agreement, and action.” Click “Like” to stay connected for updates.