Cool, Calm, and Collected

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, Charlie Rose interviews, The Big Think,, 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 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.

10 comments on “Cool, Calm, and Collected
  • Great stuff Ben.

    Re: Chomsky video. Also not a comment on the content itself. But one thing he also does is he LISTENS to the questions and is cool, calm, and collected in his response. She hardly listens, which is why she frantically continues to try to make him stumble, hardly has ANY follow-up questions on Chomsky’s actual responses, and her painbody is interfering with her ability to do an excellent job.

    Chomsky stayed as cool as an arctic cucumber. Giuliani and Reagan were also good at this.

  • Thanks for the Chomsky video, Ben!

    I don’t find the Israeli journalist’s performance as bad as you and Toli do, though. She doesn’t seem to me particularly “sharp-toned”. Maybe it’s because I’m used to see an even greater degree of dismay with which Chomsky’s views are met by his opponents! Chomsky — whom I admire — lets his stoic guard slightly down at one point: It’s when Alan Dershowitz is mentioned. Another detail which stood out for me is that the journalist uses the Hebrew pronunciation of “Chomsky”.

    Do you know the documentary “Manifacturing Consent”? Whether or not you agree with Chomsky’s views (the mandatory disclaimer – ha!) this is a very well-made film, a veritable lesson in different cinematic techniques and ways to “spice up” your material. It has snippets of Chomsky’s famous encounter with William Buckley. (This conversation can be seen in its entirety at

  • A few years ago Geoof Nunberg did a nice comparison of the use of “look” with “see.” Aggrieved rightists often use “see” as a way to amp up the troops, as in “See? The liberals want redefine marriage.” In contrast, leftists tend to use “look” in a condescending way. “Look, we all know that W is an idiot.”

  • Ben,

    Chomsky reacts the way you’re supposed to when your ideas and stance have intellectual heft.

    Clinton was brilliant. Going back to Chicago — my hometown — with it: Sometimes you have to give a verbal beat down in order restore proper respect.

    Though I haven’t commented before, I am an avid reader of your blog. I appreciate the quality of your content and the thoughtful participation of your readers. Kudos, my man.;-)

  • Dude, for such a short post, this is densely packed with good stuff. I watch interviews with similar closeness, for obvious reasons. Those and other situations have taught me that coolness/calmness/collectedness — I usually just go “equanimity” — is one of those qualities You Can’t Have Too Much Of.

  • As always, nice post ben,

    But Prof. Chomsky’s coolness is well displayed when debate that hot-headed bigot, Alan Dershowitz.

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