Controversy Conqueror

In this micro-tool, I share about tackling a controversial topic at Princeton University that could have brought the world to a screeching halt – what tactics I used to prevent the earth’s potential gravitational stop and how mastering the art of handling controversy can build respectful discourse.


Ben Pascut

6/24/20233 min read

Ben Pascut
Ben Pascut

Picture this: I’m standing on the brink of delivering a presentation before an academic audience at Princeton University. The topic? Something so insanely controversial that I imagined it would make the earth itself come to a screeching halt. How in the world could that happen? I envisioned my audience taking such a firm stand against me that they’d put their feet into the ground with a force that would stop the planet’s rotation.

Freaking out, I speed-dialed a trusted friend, blurting out, “I can’t possibly go through with this presentation! What should I do?”

“Ben, you can’t abort the mission!” He chastised me. “If anyone can go through with this, it’s you! You are born for this.”

Okay. So how did I dare to take the stage amidst the earth’s potential gravitational stop?

My friend’s encouragement was enough for me to use the 30 minutes I had left to reframe my presentation in a way that would cause my audience to keep calm and even jiggle a little. Here is the approach I took to make last-minute changes.

1. Start with something fun: I thought that I should inject humor right from the beginning to create a lighthearted atmosphere. A witty anecdote, a funny caricature, or a clever one-liner makes any audience more receptive. In this instance, I started with the question, “How would you finish the joke: a priest, a minister, and a rabbi enter a bar?” Then proceeded to make the case that, according to cognitive neuroscience, laughter stems from the clash of conflicting ideas in our minds. When something defies our expectations or goes against what we perceive as normal, it sets off a comedic explosion in our brains. And what better way to ignite that explosion than by bringing together priests, ministers, and rabbis in a single joke and under the same roof? I stressed that just as religious leaders gathered to engage in deep, controversial conversations while sipping on a cold one, is comedic, my presentation might trigger similar sentiments.

2. Find a Shared Enemy: I realized that starting with something comic is not enough. What if I was to find a shared adversity to form a bond with the audience? A common enemy unites forces and ideas, encouraging participants to look past disagreements and seek common solutions against the enemy. By rallying around a common cause, I succeeded in reducing hostility and created an environment conducive to collaboration and exploration of conflicting ideas.

3. Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room: Once I made them laugh and found a common ground, I had to address the controversy head-on. Were they ready to rally against me? Not when I expressed the contentious nature of the topic directly, making light of it by mentioning the disagreements or stereotypes associated with it. Because I spoke openly about different perspectives, I demonstrated that I could see from more than one point of view, and I was ready for a respectful debate.

4. Incorporate Engaging Elements: I always like to weave relevant examples and stories into my presentations to establish an emotional connection with the audience. In this case, I needed something more – an interactive activity. I ended up using a poll, which gave everyone the chance to voice their opinions and the opportunity to challenge my point of view indirectly. Thought-provoking conversations followed during the Q&A session.

In the end, my humor, shared adversity, open acknowledgment, and engagement protected the gravitational rotation of the planet. By embracing these strategies, I not only defied the expectations of the audience but also left them with a newfound appreciation for the power of respectful discourse and intellectual curiosity.

So, my friends, the next time you find yourself in the midst of controversy, remember that you, too, can master the art of handling controversy.