Monday, September 04, 2006

The Art of Engagement

Well, I’ve just been watching Islam channel. A show called ‘Politics and Media’ on which they’ve invited a chief superintendent. They lined up callers to ask questions and after twenty minutes I had to switch off and rush to this keyboard.

It’s happened before and with ministers visiting Muslim communities at present, no doubt, it will happen again. It seems that Muslims can’t seem to ask proper questions: there is a major problem with conversation. Primarily this is because we are culturally illiterate, we don’t understand the norms of everyday culture here and so act as bulls in china shops, destroying every opportunity for persuasion or discussion when presented.

So, here is my twenty-seven step guide to the art of engagement.

  1. Don’t give speeches. If you really want to be a speaker, practice in front of the mirror. That way, you’ll be speaking to a receptive audience.
  1. Try to cover everything in two or three sentences at the most.
  1. Keep your sentences short.
  1. Leave ‘the bang’ of your questioning to the last sentence, preferably the last word.
  1. Try to leave some space to the imagination of your audience. They are not ten year old children.
  1. Try not to tell everyone about the time when you were waiting at a bus stop/met a friend at a service station/got pulled over by the police…
  1. Smile.
  1. If you want to make jokes, make sure they’re funny. Check with friends if you are not sure. (Again, do not break the three sentence rule). If you are the only person who laughs at your own jokes, even in large gatherings, then don’t try to be funny.
  1. Practice asking your question, at least a couple of times.
  1. Try not to give the person being questioned a way out by overstating your case or by getting your facts wrong.
  1. Avoid hyperbole.
  1. If you are going to use facts, check them first.
  1. If you are going to use an idiom (such as ‘pot calling the kettle black’ or ‘the grass seems greener on the other side’), check it first (books can be bought on idioms).
  1. Try to offer reasonable options that the questioned can consider, otherwise how will there be any improvement?
  1. Speak to the questioned, not the audience.
  1. If you feel great at the end of asking the question, ask yourself why?
  1. Hand over the mike after it has been wrenched out of your hands.
  1. If possible, and this comes with great difficulty, try to understate.
  1. Try to follow up on a previous question, especially if it has not been answered. Preferably, begin with ‘I’d like to follow up on the previous question which I don’t think you answered…’
  1. Don’t point fingers or make matters personal.
  1. If you’re going to try and sound intellectual or academic, make sure you use the right words. For example, don’t use ‘scientology’ when you mean ‘scientific methodology’.
  1. Don’t think that yours is the most important question, even if it is.
  1. Don’t defend the September 11 attacks, and worse, don’t sound like you’re defending the September 11 attacks.
  1. Don’t make a point about the lack of funding, especially if your organisation is one of the few to have received a grant.
  1. Don’t assume that we must hear your opinion just because you have one.
  1. Try not to use this opportunity to have a go at someone else in the audience.
  1. Don’t think that by following any of the above, that you have somehow compromised your politics. In fact, it is the opposite. The most politically effective questions are those that are evidence-based, clear, concise and incisive. Can we please have more of them?

If after all this, the politician or policeman or whoever dodges your question, confuses, lies, or goes off on an irrelevant tangent, then don’t worry: if you’ve noticed it, so has everybody else. Remember that he is paid professionally to answer or not answer questions, and that he has probably already answered (or not answered) your question many times before. If you are unhappy with the performance of the questioned, then write to them to express your unhappiness, ask the question again and ask for a written response.