Monday night, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio gave a response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address.  I did not watch either live, but heard about it almost immediately via social media.  When your speech is known as “the Water Bottle Fiasco”, you probably missed your intent as a speaker!  One friend described Senator Rubio’s action as “he attacked that water bottle like he’d just finished running a marathon.” Let’s take a look…

I coach people to use a water bottle when speaking for two reasons:

  1. To “wet your whistle” — to eliminate dry mouth (and bottles are better than cups because they don’t spill as easily)
  2. To create a pause.

What went wrong with Senator Rubio’s approach?  He was trying to accomplish #1, and he did (albeit with some serious technical glitches) accomplish #2.  Apparently, there must be more.

Tactically, he erred by putting the water bottle out of reach.  When you are on television, the field of view — and thus acceptable movement — is limited to in-frame.  He had to lean completely out of the picture to get his water, requiring the cameraman to move with him.  I’m sure that created urgency in his mind, which created a sense of being in a hurry in our mind.  This was made worse by the glances at the bottle he stole.  I count three separate glances at the water bottle itself.  If the bottle had been in reach, he would neither have needed to glance, or reach, or rush — and we would never be having this conversation.

Second, he featured his action not only by his glance, but by his rush.  Instead, he should just stop speaking, reach over, and be done with it.  There’s no need to speak while leaning, or hurrying to do the deed.  You need water. Get it.  Pause.  Drink.  Move on.

Third, his (short) gulp highlighted his rush.  If you are really thirsty, take a big drink.  Take your time.  We’ll wait (from first glance to moving on takes less than 5 seconds, and he was silent only 3 seconds during the incident — certainly not too long of a pause).  The quick swig brings attention to the whole scenario, again, causing it to be the focus rather than a small pause and a side note to his message.

In addition, his pace of action changed.  His next sentence was at a different pace.  His movements to the water bottle were not natural movements.  All of this draws (the wrong kind of) attention.

The lesson to any delivery action is clear: if your audience remembers what you do more than what you say, you have not been successful as a communicator.

Drinking water is not the problem here.  Humans — and especially speakers — need it to survive.  The problem is that the act of drinking became the focus, so much so that no one is really discussing much of what he’s saying.  A few easy changes in behavior and this would not have been an issue at all.

As much as you are able: Keep distractions out of your audience’s mind.

Now, about those repetitive gestures…