Then there’s the other kind. These are the ones populated by one or (horrors!) more hecklers, and they are the stuff nightmares are made of. But they are not unmanageable, if you memorise, and confidently use, these techniques. First, fish out a heckler’s name. If a hostile member of the audience, whose intent is to catch you out, asks a particularly spiteful question, don’t respond with hostility. Ask for the person’s name instead: ‘What is your name, sir?’
Why? Because this takes the attention off you, and directs it toward the heckler. He or she can no longer remain anonymous. They are forced to put their name where their mouth is. Often this alone is enough to deflate a heckler. Then thank the heckler for his question, ‘Good question, Mr McCartney. Thank you.’ If they won’t give you their name, don’t answer their question. Move on to the next person. Then, paraphrase, and get to the heart of the issue.
By asking a person’s name, you have already bought yourself a couple of seconds to think of a response. If the question is overtly hostile – ‘Why, Mr President, do you allow children to starve?’ – you do not have to answer it exactly the way it was put to you. The above question is phrased in such a way that no matter how you answer it, it will make you look bad. It is not an ‘honest’ question. It is not earnestly seeking information. It is an accusation – and its purpose is to launch an indirect attack on you. Your best defence is to respond by first paraphrasing (or restating) the questioner’s words and then ‘going to the heart’ of the issue, rather than answering in their terms.
In this case, the answer to the question would be: ‘Mr McCartney, you appear to be concerned about children (paraphrasing, removing the sting and getting to the heart of the issue). As the President of this country, so am I. Let me address the issue of poverty among children, and tell you what the government is doing about it.’ Don’t respond by saying, ‘That’s not true! I do care about children!’ It makes you sound desperate and robs you of authority. Whenever you are faced with a tricky question, or one that has a sting in the tail, do not answer by using your questioner’s own words. You don’t have to be evasive. But you are not obliged to entertain a slur on your character or an attack on your integrity. Paraphrasing (or rephrasing) a question and going to the heart of an issue is your means of remaining in control in the face of hostility.