One of the hazards of speaking in public is that some percentage of the audience will not agree with you. And some small percentage of that group will express itself physically. Political figures most often run this risk, but anyone who represents an organization or cause faces a similar risk.
The most famous of such incidents, at least measured by YouTube views, was former President Bush’s encounter with an Iraqi shoe.
President Bush beautifully illustrated the power of the unconscious mind in this incident. He ducked right on cue, because his unconscious mind was scanning the surroundings looking for danger and trying to keep him safe. We are capable of monitoring something like 11 million bits of information per second unconsciously. By contrast, our conscious minds can only handle something like 40 bits per second. That’s probably why the record of public officials throwing out the first pitch is so dismal: they’re thinking consciously about what they’re doing.
President Obama recently dodged a book hurled at him by a disgruntled citizen:
Here, it appears that the book was out of his peripheral vision so that he never even saw it.
Other politicians have not been so lucky:
So, given that there is little your conscious mind can or should do about incoming missiles, is there anything the alert public speaker can do to prepare for this kind of mishap?
Turn the problem over to your unconscious mind. If you really think that there’s a risk of brickbats, or rotting vegetables, or shoes coming at you, then as you mount the stage, say to yourself something like, “I am alert and ready to dodge anything thrown at me.” That’s all you can do. The alternative, cowering behind a very tall podium, is really not preferable.
There are two other options to consider. The first is to create speeches that seriously take in the opposing points of view. One reason why the populace is so angry and inclined to hurl things at its leaders is that there is precious little dialogue and way too much monologue – and sheer distortion – in the political world today.
The ancient Greeks derived a structure for a speech for precisely this occasion. In rhetorical circles, it’s known as the “residues method.” What you do is set out the issue first, in relatively brief terms, but including the relevant data. Then, you discuss the alternate points of view – seriously, with respect – without mocking or distorting them. Take them seriously. Then, politely point out what you think are the flaws in that reasoning. Once you’ve discussed the several possible points of view, and rejected them for cogent reasons, what’s left is your point of view – the residue of the argument. Then you can say why that argument is, in your opinion, the best.
That method will disarm your opponents because they will feel that at least they’ve been heard. And disarmed opponents will be less likely to throw things.
Former President Bush gave a great example of a residues speech that had the intended effect back in 2001 when he discussed the issue of using stem cells in scientific research. It’s worth studying the speech because it offers a serious discussion of the various sides of the issue – something that seems almost quaint today. But it had the desired effect, and largely put to rest the political debate about the issue for several years.
And the other option?
Hire really great security.