The second week of smaller group activities has included sessions on public speaking and question answering. They've been able to fit a surprisingly large amount of advice and example scenarios into a relatively short period of time, and I have truly found it helpful. I'm more impressed now watching people answer questions on TV than I was prior to this week -- there's definitely a skill to public performance which goes beyond simply knowing the material. Trying to envision myself deftly deflecting questions and discussing policy isn't the easiest of tasks, but surely not even the most adept of public speakers started out that way.
My own particular practice speech went fairly well... right up until the point I became overwhelmed with emotion, burst into tears, and couldn't continue. In retrospect this has become more amusing than embarrassing -- definitely a lesson on knowing which topics to avoid. For sure, I'll never talk about steel tariffs again.
(No, no; just kidding -- I was actually talking about the need for cultural exchange, and got tripped up when I tried to address the value I placed on the relationships I formed in Japan. The combination of nerves and strong memories was just a little more than I could handle. But I did -- no joke -- manage to sing the first verse and chorus of the Japanese version of "Suwannee River" during my intro, and I think I ought to get bonus points for that. The nerve-induced excessive voice wavering just made it sound more like enka.)
Practicing answering tough questions in a public forum was a little more interesting than just sweating out making it through (in my case, half) a speech. We were given a scenario the night before the practice (you're speaking to students in China, you're talking to American expats in Columbia, etc.), went home and did a bit of research on the region's policy issues, and then the next day our groups fired questions at us in an attempt to recreate the sort of atmosphere American representatives often encounter. Most people were in press room scenarios, but mine happened to be a cocktail party in India. I had researched the recent meeting between Prime Minister Singh and President Bush, but still I wasn't quite as on top of my answers as I could have been. The thing is, people hardly ever ask about the 'issues' -- question topics ranged from racism to terrorism. It was pretty true to what I had encountered as a private citizen during my time overseas. I would imagine that as an official US representative, things get even more heated.
One part of all this which I am looking forward to is actually having the answers to the 'tough questions'. Sometimes in London, or even in Japan, I found myself caught off guard and floundering -- such as when a South African girl at a dorm birthday party demanded to know why the US had supported apartheid, or when a priest from Northern Africa verbally attacked me on a train for US agricultural policy. It seems like everyone always knows a little bit about America, and is insulted when the little bit you know about their country doesn't exactly coincide with their particular concern. Every person's concerns are always different; it's hard for even the most well-read American to be familiar with everything.
In that vein, for those of you going to foreign cocktail parties, you can always find official American goverment postions on the Department of State International Issues website. You don't have to agree with the US position, but it's always helpful to know what it is.
Next week, we find out where our first postings will be.