By Varun Karthik (19S06A)
If the name Darrion Mohan sounds familiar, it should. The Oxford undergraduate student questioned Malaysia’s Godfather Dr Tun Mahathir at an Oxford Union event where Mahathir was invited to speak. The exchange that the not-too-old-Boy had with Dr Mahathir over the geo-political bickering between Singapore and Malaysia — a mainstay of Dr M’s legislative agenda — went viral back home in Singapore.
But for many of us, this is not the first time we have seen a leader or an invited speaker faced with difficult questions from the audience. Over the years, I have had the privilege of listening to many people, from diplomats to ministers to business leaders, speak. Often at the end of their speech is a question and answer session. A chance for direct interaction. I almost definitely know that there will be one angry, confrontational question asked at these sessions, particularly so for political leaders. After all, it’s self-selecting in a way, since most people wouldn’t queue to ask questions and hence those who do usually have a burning reason to do so. And honestly, I enjoy it. And although I have never queued to ask a question myself, I have had to question others and deal with questions as a debater.
In competitive debating there is something knows as Points of Information, or POIs. Essentially the opposing team gets to interrupt you during your speech and offer statements or questions not lasting more than 15 seconds. So the members of the opposing team would stand up to say something “point of information sir/ mam” and the speaker can choose to either accept the POI or wave them down.
I have fumbled with POIs when I’m on the floor, offered outright stupid POIs and still do both. But I have learnt a thing or two about making effective use of 15 seconds to possibly edge out an opponent in a debate, or at least not come across as stupid. I am putting together the debriefs my debate coaches have given me about POIs with my own experience of witnessing multiple speeches to share my opinions about what I think is important for people to know when they go up to ask questions to invited speakers and guests. Emphasis on the word ‘ opinions’ in the previous line.
Set the bar low
When you are given the opportunity to ask a speaker a question, I think it is important to be acutely aware that the odds are against you. You are unlikely to spark some revolutionary change, kickstart an uprising, challenge the status-quo, dish out justice or change heavily embedded stigmas in society with one question. In fact, you are unlikely to even get the speaker to concede to you in any way
Politics, at the end of the day, is an highly orchestrated circus or theatre, depending on how much you follow the news. Politicians or even business and social leaders often have huge communication teams, PR firms, image consultants and advisers behind them, crafting and fine tuning their message to maximise demographic impact with the aid of polling figures and focus group discussions. Every speech they deliver is not written by them, but rather the work of dedicated teams of speech writers. Similarly every time they appear on talk shows and TV programmes, they have been likely been briefed by their team with ‘talking points’. So every joke or witty remark they make which might seem off the cuff really is anything but. (Justin Trudeau is not an exception)
So in the context of any audience engagement, they will likely have been briefed by their own communication teams and received talking points from their higher-ups. If it is a particularly hot topic of late, they will probably have worked first-hand on the issue and have almost definitely been told what to say or thought of what to say. So, you are probably not going to take them by surprise, change their mind or even get them to concede with a single question you ask. They know exactly how to respond to your question and are simply putting the bullet points that they have at the back of their head into coherent sentences. And even if, for some reason, they have not prepared to answer your exact question, these people did not get where they are by letting people run over them.
And sure, you might think that you are smarter than them and more eloquent than them. But you also need to realise that a back and forth exchange between you and the speaker is unlikely. In most instances by the time you reach the microphone to ask a question, there is probably a long queue extending behind you with many others eager to get their questions heard as well. So any smart rebuttals you had in mind will probably not have any time to be heard and the speaker’s words- even if it is based on fabrication and conjecture and fallacies- is likely to be final. Because you will not want to be known as the guy who hijacked the discussion or hogged the microphone. Darrion Mohan himself had to eventually pass the microphone towards the end of the exchange even as Dr Mahathir was making assertions about the Malaysian vessel being in disputed waters.
Simply put, do not go there disillusioned, thinking that a simple question is going to make the speaker disintegrate. Things are never that easy. So don’t try to change the speakers mind with the limited time you have. Instead, ask a question that allows the speaker to explain his stance, his motivations or opinions. Probably a better idea.
Don’t steer, Mahathir
In most instances people asking the question probably have crafted it beforehand- you should have. You want to use all the knowledge you have and cover as much ground as possible, and so you write a mini-essay with multiple claims, multiple assertions and multiple clauses. Weird flex, but not okay.
With POIs in debates, people often have a tendency to rattle off for 15 seconds and at the end of the verbal diarrhea, they sit down with much satisfaction from having asked a killer question or having trapped the opponents. But the problem is, both the opponent and the judge do not understand any part of what you just said. Similarly, saying something that can be easily comprehended and understood is the baseline and anything that fails to does not mean that you outsmarted anyone. Extremely long sentences or paragraphs or narratives within a question are a complete no no. Run-on sentences only mean that is a high likelihood that you are incoherent and you will likely be dismissed at worst and at best, the speaker is going to catch onto a few key phrases that he did understand/ hear from your speech and he will use them to nicely lead him onto the talking points that he had already drafted out.
And often even if your questions are perfectly coherent, people have a tendency to pile on multiple assertions and pack questions with multiple parts into it. But the problem with that is every part you add to the question is another opening you are giving the speaker to take the conversation elsewhere. Kellyanne Conway is an extreme but great illustration of this.
She is always on the lookout for a word, phrase or opening of any sort to bring the discussion away from the intended course of the interviewer to wherever she wants it or at the very least, hinder any sort of discussion from taking place at all. So when an interviewer asks her about Trump’s lies about the turnout at the inauguration and says “ alternative facts or not facts, they are falsehoods”, she latches onto the word ‘facts’ and replies with “ do you think it’s a fact or not that millions of people have lost their health insurance plans under president Obama?” Definitely not the question being asked.
Back at the chambers of the Oxford Union, Mahathir pulled off the same old trick. The question he initially faced faced was two- fold. Firstly, what punishments was the Johor menteri besar going to face and secondly if Mr.M agreed that actions like those contributed to the perception that Malaysia was returning to the days of confrontational diplomacy, with a quote from Najib Razak. A quote. Yet, Mahathir’s first instinctive response is to tell him that he was free to choose Najib Razak and then ask if Mr. Mohan was Malaysian. Mr Mohan replied by stating that that was not what he has asked and the question was whether he wanted to return to fraught diplomatic ties with Singapore, quoting a full laundry list of examples including the high speed rail, the airspace, the maritime dispute, the crooked bridge and inadvertently mentioned water price revision as the last example.
Dr M then goes on a spiel about Singapore’s purchase of water at 3 cents per thousand gallons and the sale of it to Malaysia at 60 dollars per thousand gallons- conveniently turning an issue about International waters into one about tap water and along the way informs us on the exchange rates of Singapore, Malaysian and even American currency, the inexpensive nature of the water refining process, some statistics about the quantities of water sold, the exact years various water agreements were signed and essentially did everything except answer the real question.The last example that Mr Mohan used to back up an assertion at the heart of a much larger question becomes the only thing he tackles.
And yes, once again on the point I made previously about the fact that you do not want to be seen hogging the floor. So once Dr M successfully deflects the real question for a good three and a half minutes, Darrion goes back to restating the initial question but by now the real question is barely answered. The exchange on the real question lasts all of a minute and it becomes a battle of assertions in the dying moments of the exchange as Darrion repeatedly says he is going to pass the microphone. Mahathir gets away without committing to any real answer on what the Menteri Besar of Johor was facing.
If Darrion Mohan had asked the initial question without any mention of Najib Razak or if he had later chosen to omit any mention of the price-revision of water agreements, the outcomes could have been radically different. And so the lesson is this: if you are really are asking a particularly hard question that the speaker might not be able to answer, then he has an incentive to deflect the question. So keep your questions nice and short and extremely, extremely specific, and the phrasing extremely, extremely tight.
Ask yourself, “will my question still stand without this? “ everytime you want to add something. If the answer is no, do not add it. Ask exactly what you want to ask and drop any controversial or jarring examples that can possibly be hijacked. And make sure you are very very clear about what you are saying.
As Harvey Specter once said, when someone is holding a gun to your head you should either take their gun, pull out a bigger gun or call their bluff or do one of a 146 other things. Your job, as the one holding the proverbial gun, is to given them as few options as possible to weasel out.
If you are going up to ask a question, I’m sure you have an extreme conviction in your question as well as extreme feelings for or against the person speaking or the issue you are raising. I get it, it’s okay to feel emotions. But I don’t necessarily think that you should channel those emotions and feelings into the questions you ask.
Firstly, the purpose of the invited speaker answering questions is often to enlighten the crowd, give the audience some insight into how they think and to share their knowledge and experience with us young minds. It is not a feedback session or a press conference or a TV show. And so while i’m all for hard questions, I do think that using the opportunity to make judgemental, close-minded statements defeats the purpose of inviting speakers.
Secondly, the optics. Unfortunately, there are already very prevalent , largely negative stereotypes about those who ask questions in a forceful, angry manner. This is particularly true for women but applicable to men as well. There is this stereotype of liberal, progressive individuals who are rather loud and forceful with their political beliefs, but rather unintellectual, annoying and empty. So at the immediate point at which you go up there with a little bit of sass, anger or attitude, you will just be dismissed as yet another SJW. Doesn’t help if your question is going to be about something like freedom of speech or gender pay gap either.
At this juncture I’m sure someone’s blood is boiling somewhere. But as much as I firmly believe against stereotyping people, I am also acutely aware that stereotypes are very much prevalent in many of our minds in both overt and covert forms and that is an unfortunate reality. A part of our minds that speakers can and will tap into. Which is why Ben Shapiro casually mentions “you are coming in angry already” even before people start questioning, to the laughter of the crowd.
And frankly, it is distracting. If your question is of real value, the question will speak volumes for itself. But when you go there with a rather confrontational tone, you are displacing the question and the speaker’s response from the centre of attention, placing yourself under the spotlight. The question is no longer what people care about once it becomes a confrontation between you and the speaker.
The question, really is, what value do you bring with an aggressive tone? Nothing. The microphone will ensure that you are heard even if you do not yell and you are certainly not intimidating anyone. But you do give the speaker ammunition to dismiss you, cast yourself as a Bimbo and distract people from where the focus of the discussion should be. So, doing a simple cost benefit analysis should tell you that its probably not worth it. A carefully crafted and well thought out question delivered in a calm and composed manner will be more likely to elucidate a clearer and better response and do justice to the real question.
On a more “philosophical” point, I personally believe that discourse in society as a whole will benefit from less sick burns and more rational, cool-headed discussion and I think that starts from the simple things. When we invite speakers to share in the context of a school, the only aim is to educate the students and any direct engagements with the speaker are an opportunity to give students more insights and learn from the depth of knowledge and experience many of these speakers have. Questions asked, therefore, should be to further understand more about the complex world we live in, the speaker’s area of expertise or the speaker’s beliefs. Confrontational questions are hence antithetical to the very purpose of inviting a speaker but also can also be perceived as being rude and can reflect badly, on not just yourself but also the school, institution or body you are representing.
After all, a huge portion of discourse that happens around us stems from questions- be it the questions you ask an invited guest, the questions an elected representative asks at a hearing or the questions you ask at the dinner table. Questions often spark conversations, break down the discussions surroundings huge issues into bite-sized, understandable pieces and allows for re-evaluation of our thoughts and our positions. Hence, better questions necessarily means better discourse on big issues like whether pineapple belong on pizza or the wetness of water as well as significantly pettier, more trivial issues like meritocracy, income inequality, immigration, gender equality and that sorta stuff.
On that note if you do have questions about anything you read in this article, want to pose me a difficult question or simple want to put any part of what you read into practice, do hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6DpJal9-mU