Friday, July 17, 2009

A Sotomayor story makes an impact

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor fielded one of the most general questions in her Senate confirmation hearings -- "Why do you want to be a Supreme Court Justice?" from newly seated Senator Al Franken -- and used it as an opportunity to tell a story. The answer was a refreshing change from the formal answers to queries on jurisprudence, and, as most personal stories do, brought the speaker to life. Here's what she said, from the transcript:
When Senator Moynihan first told me that he would consider sending my name to Senator D'Amato for consideration as a district court judge, he asked me to keep it quiet for a little bit of time, and I asked permission to tell my mom and Omar. He said, sure.

So they were visiting and I told them. And Mom was very, very excited. And she then said, "How much more money are you going to earn?" (Laughter.) And I stopped and I said, "I'm going to take a big pay cut."

Then she stopped, and she stopped, and she said, "Are you going to do as much foreign travel as you do now?" Because I was flying all over the U.S. and abroad as part of my private-practice work. And I said, "Probably not, because I'm going to live in a courthouse in Lower Manhattan near where I used to work as a Manhattan DA."

Now the pause was a little longer. And she said, "Okay."

Then she said, "Now all the fascinating clients that you work with"—as you may have heard yesterday, I had some fairly well-known clients—"you're going to be able to go traveling with them and with the new people you meet, right?" And I said, "No. Most of them are going to come before me as litigants to the cases I'm hearing, and I can't become friends with them."

Now the pause was really long. And she finally looked up, and she says, "Why do you want this job?" (Laughter.)

And Omar, who was sitting next to her, said, "Celina, you know your daughter—" this is in Spanish "—you know your daughter, and her stuff with public service." That really has always been the answer.

Given who I am, my love of the law, my sense of importance about the rule of law, how central it is to the functioning of our society, how it sets us apart, as many senators have noted, from the rest of the world—have always created a passion in me. And that passion led me to want to be a lawyer first, and now to be a judge, because I can't think of any greater service that I can give to the country than to be permitted the privilege of being a justice of the Supreme Court.
(Photo by talkradionews on Flickr.)

Graceful ways with Q&A

Two readers recently posed questions about what to do when your presentation veers off-track because of audience questions? Put another way: Is there any way to get the audience in line with your presentation? You'll need to float like a butterfly, not sting like a bee. Here's what they asked:
  • Emily Culbertson requested "Graceful ways to bring off-topic questions (sometimes relative, sometimes absolute) back to the body of the talk when Q&A veers off-course."

  • Mary Fletcher Jones wants to know, "How do you handle the person who won't stop interrupting and commenting and asking questions, you know, to annoying degree (when you can actually feel the audience bristling). Every so often they pop up, and it can get kind of disruptive."

Let me just say you want questions--it's a sign the audience is engaged and expectant that you have answers to issues important to them. Managing questioners is important not just for staying focused on your topic, but also to create a level playing field for the entire audience. At the same time, shutting down questioners and refusing to engage won't win you fans, a key reason I like Emily's request for "graceful ways" to manage questioners. As with any extemporaneous part of your presentation, however, some forethought and planning are vital to your success. Here are some graceful options when you're handling a questioner:

  1. Create a bridge between the question and the answer. Especially effective with an off-topic question, this tactic works just as well with queries in line with your points. It's a three-point movement: Acknowledge the question, then affirm or rebut, and explain why. One example: "I know there's a lot of debate on that point among practitioners in the field right now. In my experience, however, that option limits our ability to measure our results. That's why I recommend...." Or a simple acknowledgement -- "That's a thorny issue, isn't it? Thanks for pointing that out" can do a lot to let the question stand as the point, instead of requiring you to respond. Using the bridge tactic also creates enough space to give you time to think--and gives the questioner some recognition of her issue, even though you're disagreeing.

  2. Remind the audience of your focus today. "I wish I could delve into that topic--it'd take another session or two to cover." "I know that's a big issue, but my focus today is a small one--what to do before that happens." Don't be afraid to point out how your topic is juxtaposed to the one brought up.

  3. Beware of argumentative questions...and deflect them. Sometimes, you'll have an outwardly hostile audience member whose questions aim to lead you into an argument. Don't bite. Instead, cultivate (through practice) a calm stance and a few graceful comebacks that help you acknowledge and move away from the fight. "If I could answer that, I'd be a millionaire," for example, is a mild but humorous way to deflect a question that asks you to define or fix something unknowable. "Where are the data you're basing that on?" helps to narrow down a question full of exaggerations and low on facts.

  4. Acknowledge the persistence of the persistent questioner. You think you're distracted by the five-time questioner? So are the audience members trying to get a word in edgewise. I don't mind taking more than one question per person, but if you suspect you have someone wanting to dominate the conversation, it helps to say, "I'd like to give others the chance to participate. Let's talk afterwards--it's clear you have a lot to say." That acknowledgement helps the audience know YOU know there's a problem!

  5. Breathe, smile and stay calm.That's your mantra during Q&A time, as you want to seem welcoming of questions as well as in control of their flow. Even when a pointed question comes up, your lack of over-reaction will help the entire audience sense that you're in calm control.
I'm grateful that this post made it into Andrew Dlugan's Six Minutes Blog weekly roundup of the best blog posts on public speaking. Thanks, Andrew!

Related posts: How to listen to audience questions

When you don't know what to say: Thinking while answering

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