I don't watch TV but I do watch a good number of videos online, and there's plenty of fascinating stuff out there on bloggingheads.tv, Charlie Rose interviews, The Big Think, fora.tv, and more. I study interviews in particular to view how people at the top of their game carry themselves when they are not in complete control of a conversation.
Recently I watched two videos in which I noticed one person present him/herself in a more polished manner than the other. Both of the more impressive-seeming people stayed cool, calm, and collected throughout the conversation. Sounds basic, but during emotionally tense or argumentative situations, it really is a talent.
First, a 20-minute interview between Noam Chomsky and a TV journalist. Whether you agree or disagree isn't the point and don't interpret this as an endorsement of Chomsky's views. I don't have opinions on these issues until I become more informed. What does matter is how coolly and calmly Chomsky disputes the interviewer's assumptions. The interviewer's early aggressive tone morphs into a stilted, panicked one. Chomsky is relaxed the whole time and occasionally firmly raises his voice but only when it's necessary. Instead of responding to sharp-toned questions with sharp-toned answers, he stays leveled, and it comes off well on-camera.
Second, Jonah Goldberg and David Frum recently did a 65 minute bloggingheads.tv conversation. It is pretty inside baseball to the cause David Frum has taken up about the the state of conservatism, but again, the actual issues aren't the point. There is an interesting contrast in manner and demeanor between the two. Frum is the whole time impeccably polite, calm, and when he disagrees, very professional. Charming, even. Goldberg is no chump either when it comes to polish, but a few times begins his answer with an emotional yelp, bemused face, and "Well….". Frum asks several questions, Socratic-style. Backed into a wall on the definition of socialism, Goldberg stammers a "Look," too many times. "Look…", used rarely, bestows authority. Obama begins many sentences with it. But used too much it sounds overly defensive.
Finally, if you're ever looking for tips and tricks on the rhetoric front, just watch a Barack Obama press conference. The guy's a master, not that this is exactly news. In this most recent press conference — why I ended up watching half of it online is a mystery even to me — he deftly handles a probing question from a journalist with a laugh, smile, and a "Come on, Jackie, I don't know." Again: cool, calm, collected.
If you want an example of a talented rhetorical response that's not exactly cool, calm, and collected, but still extraordinary, watch this 50 second clip of Bill Clinton responding to a heckler in 1992 when he ran for president for the first time. Goosebumps.