Clear Comm Consulting

What to Say When You Are at a Loss for Words

Sep 28, 2008

We’ve all been there. Your mind goes blank at a key moment in a conversation or while in front of an audience. Ouch! I was amazed during last month’s Olympics when swimming superstar Michael Phelps said about a dozen times, “I’m at a loss for words,” right after breaking the Mark Spitz record for gold medals.

Given all the expected attention (we knew he would be the face of the U.S. team) I was surprised how unprepared he seemed at times. Proper prep work would have set him up for success and would have reflected well on him, his sport, the Olympics and the United States. Now let me be clear — Phelps did fine, but he could have handled it much better and it got me thinking of simple rules for handling those situations when your mind just doesn’t seem to be coming up with any good ideas.

Appreciation: The quickest thing anyone can do is thank those who got them to a place where they receive recognition. Wouldn’t it have been great if Phelps would have launched into a thank you for all those coaches, Moms and Dads and others who worked with him and provided volunteer hours at those swim meets early in his career — everyone who was there for him and helped him reach this lofty place?

Maturity: Demonstrate leadership by talking about what others can learn from this experience. How about: “I hope anyone who is watching this can be inspired to pursue their dreams. It’s not about being an Olympic gold medal winner — it’s about chasing your dreams and not settling for what’s easy or the boundaries someone else says you have to live within.”

Largess: This is the word I have on the bulletin board next to my computer in my office. This world could use a little more largess and a little less ego and self aggrandizement. It’s so unusual for an honored person to genuinely share the spotlight and show their true feelings of caring for others. Let’s change that! Let’s make it the norm to offer praise for others (even the competition) and show an understanding of the journey instead of just breaking an arm patting ourselves on the back. Michael Phelps was certainly humble considering the magnitude of his accomplishment, but wouldn’t it have been great if he immediately would have talked about the amazing athletes who have inspired him over the years and therefore helped him get to this place.

Again, for those Michael Phelps fans out there, I was right with you in being amazed at his accomplishments. The fact is, however, very few athletes get that chance — the chance to completely have the spotlight and stage to themselves because of the magnitude of their feat. And for anyone who reaches a level of distinction, learn something from this example. Be ready! And make it a chance to show character and appreciation and maturity and largess instead of just saying, “Gee, I’m at a loss for words!”

To show I am rarely at a loss for words, I was lucky enough to be quoted in a fun, tongue-in-cheek Washington Post article about Senator McCain earlier this month. I would like to thank all those who helped me get to this place … check it out by going to:

Next Month: Some lessons learned from this year’s election.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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