Organized chaos

Suddenly, people in the room felt a great deal of tension. A man rose from his seat in the middle of the auditorium. He cleared his throat. He appeared to muster his courage in front of several hundred others in the audience and a platform of political dignitaries. He looked to the moderator and began to speak.

“I am a taxpayer in Scarborough,” he began, “and I see the Scarborough subway extension coming, but I have a serious question…”

At precisely that moment, in the corner of the hall some sort of air compressor or ventilation pump clicked into gear. And the gush of air and the grinding sound of its motor all but drowned out the sound of the man about to ask the dignitaries present that serious question.

Handling the handlers

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.
Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

She started looking and listening from the moment she entered the room. Almost as if she were a bomb-sniffing canine, she was casing the space in which Olivia Chow was about to participate in a mayoral debate, Monday evening. I was the moderator and introduced myself. She had a raft of questions about where Ms. Chow would be sitting during the debate, and what the order of speaking would be. Then, just before her candidate entered the room, the handler approached me with one final question.

“How will Olivia know when her speaking time is up?” the woman asked me. “Have you got signs to count her down to the end of her time?”

“No.” I said. “I’ll just tell her she’s got 30 seconds left.”

“I really think you ought to have visual signs for her,” she insisted.

“Don’t worry. I’ve moderated a lot of debates. I don’t think we need visual signals. I’ll just find an appropriate moment, a breath pause in Olivia’s comments, and I’ll gently say, ‘Thirty seconds.’ It should work just fine.”