While we wait for AI gatekeepers to be adept enough at detecting and sending trolls back to the murky waters of 4chan where they belong, digital trolls are a reality all people on the Internet must tolerate in the meantime.
Some trolls can’t be reasoned with. But for the ones that can, how should you respond to a freshly hurled insult? Steve Jobs, for one, seems to have nailed the art. In a recently recirculating 1997-era video of him speaking at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, Jobs is taking questions from the audience when he gets this rather unsavory tidbit thrown at him:
"It's sad and clear that on several counts you've discussed, you don't know what you're talking about. I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms how, say, Java and any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc. And when you're finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years."
Pretty rough, right? Jobs' infamous response to this low blow-dealing troll, however, properly shut him down. And his communication template is one we can all pull from.
1. Anticipate criticisms of your stance.
As someone who studied Public Relations and now works in the industry, it seems pretty clear to me that the answer Jobs weaves into his response to the troll was preplanned. Before this conference, Jobs had been barraged with similar questions, so this was very much in the realm of what he should have expected. Simply put, it’s easier to respond to opposition when you’ve prepared for it.
2. Don't react immediately.
At the time of the comment from the troll, Jobs was already fidgeting with a water bottle. So when the insult was finished, he took a swig from his bottle, looked down, and paused to gather his thoughts to locate the proper answer. He didn’t make any pronounced nonverbal or verbal responses, but instead looked thoughtful (though, mind you, the insult in this video harkens back to what feels like a bygone era of civil discourse).
3. Give a broad opening line that feels favorable to the troll, but qualified.
This was the first sentence of his prepared answer:
“One of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that... people, like this gentlemen, are right, in some areas.”
See how it seems like he’s agreeing with the troll, but qualifies it so in reality he’s not. It’s always a good idea to start with a more friendly response, even if you totally disagree with the other person’s stance.
4. Answer the question you want asked.
The question Jobs got was about a specific programming language and his personal life. However inappropriate the latter was, Jobs did not specifically answer either, but instead ended up answering the more favorable, general question of: “Are there mistakes that were made when you decided to make a big change in the company, and who is the ultimate decision-maker in a tech company: engineers or customers?”
This is a pretty classic political maneuver, and still incredibly effective. The answer plays to the familiar old business adage that the customer is always right.
“And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, um, it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer? Not, not starting with let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how are we going to market that. And I think that’s the right path to take.”
5. To conclude, acknowledge the fallibility of you and your team — then support both.
You should be your own biggest cheerleader — humble brag, anyone? The wealthier you are, the more you can pay others to generate excitement about you to others (that is, after all, the essence of public relation campaigns), but in the beginning, it’s just you and your team. Admit mistakes that were made, talk about the lessons that came from them, but then move on and discuss why you and your team are hardworking and deserving of support and the benefit of the doubt.
“I’m sorry that OpenDocs’ a casualty along the way. And I readily admit there are many things in life that I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, so I apologize for that, too. But there’s a whole lot of people working super, super hard right now at Apple.“
Jobs finishes strong in his response by pointing out there are people working long shifts well past midnight to crank out the application programs they think fit with their company’s values, and that hard work is deserving of support and praise. It’s almost an intrinsic value to reward hard work and give serious teams the benefit of the doubt. Jobs plays on this innate understanding, winning over the audience.
“We’ll find the mistakes, and we’ll fix them. And I think what we need to do is support that team going through this very important stage as they work their butts off…”
Layla F. Tabatabaie, Esq. is a New York attorney, author, and digital marketer. Having done over six years of branding, fundraising, digital marketing, PR, and copywriting for VC-backed web apps, mobile apps, blockchain companies, and chatbots, she is always seeking the next challenge and opportunity. Layla is the author of the law chapter in the academic text Learning in Virtual Worlds (2016). She lives in her favorite metropolis, New York City.