Who couldn’t be impressed by the grace and composure of US Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson?
Dipping into the live senate confirmation hearings, I was impressed by her calmness and patience in the face of days of exhaustive, often hostile and many times irrelevant questioning.
Much of what KBJ had to contend with was showboating; not questions at all. She was either interrupted before she could finish a sentence or the questions were outside her judicial brief and designed to make a fool of her. “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” asked one senator. “Do you agree that babies are racist?” asked another.
Wisely, she deflected them all.
The most hostile senators weren’t really testing her suitability for the job.
Judge Jackson, set to be the first black woman on the nation’s highest court, is one of the most highly qualified candidates in its history. Instead, her would-be interrogators were playing to their private galleries: partisan TV shows, their constituency base, and the funders of their re-election campaigns.
The judge’s courteous and thoughtful manner gave us lessons on facing a difficult audience. Here are a few of my takes:
- If you’re being quoted out of context, say so
- Ask for questions to be clarified or repeated if they’re muddled or obscure
- Do acknowledge every question. But you don’t have to answer every question in the way it’s put
- If questions are outside your brief or expertise, say so. Never bluff an answer
- Take your time. Pause for thought before you answer
- Recognize that some questions are just statements or opinions. The people expressing them are not that interested in what you have to say. They just want to be heard
- Never feel you have to refute, in the moment, every half-baked notion put to you
- When they go low, you go high
- Stay calm. Be courteous. Drink water
Peter Coë; March 25, 2022
Peter anchored BBC television news for many years and has nearly 30 years’ experience as a speaker trainer and personal coach. He has a short, online course for public speakers.