Very few times in a person’s life is presence of mind as acutely important as when he or she is facing questions as part of a speech, presentation or a debate.
Being able to grasp the intent and meaning of the question, think of a reply, frame it in a fashion that will answer it with clarity and precision while still keeping it interesting and engaging is truly an art. Not to mention that all the aforementioned acts have to be completed within a few seconds.
Not a task for the weak of heart. But certainly doable, if one is committed to the process.
One of the most brilliant displays of wit and wisdom came from the great orator President Reagan during his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun asked a question, during the live telecast, “You already are the oldest President in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr Mondale. I recall yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”
President Reagan was seventy three at the time and was debating Mr. Mondale who was younger and certainly looking dapper, energetic and with a lot fewer wrinkles.
But not one to be outdone, President Reagan went on to give an answer which nearly made him immortal for his wit, wisdom and presence of mind. “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt. And I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” And with that he went on to win the election to gain the second term of his presidency.
Presence of mind, of the kind displayed by President Reagan, specially in a high stakes game like a presidential debate doesn’t come easy or overnight. Besides the oratorial skills that he was known for, President Reagan also had the advantage of preparing his replies ahead of time.
While President Reagan would deny any evidence of preparation for giving such a brilliant reply, his aide Richard Wirthlin recalls a different story. Knowing that age will become an issue in the campaign, Wirthlin reminded the President of the same. And the reply was “Don’t worry Dick, I’ve got a way to deal with that question, and I’m just waiting for it to come up.”
Prepared or not, the reply was brilliant and so was the style of delivery and the roaring laughter from the audience. Even Mr. Mondale burst out laughing.
This certainly underlines the need for preparing for every little possibility and not be surprised by questions from the audience, opponents or the press. Specially in high stakes games like debates, earnings calls, pre-IPO roadshows and boardroom arguments one can never be too careful. And no such thing as too much preparation.