Monday, July 25, 2011

The Secret To Stonewalling An Answer

One of the most common fears people have about doing a live TV interview is what to do when the reporter repeatedly asks them a question they don't want to answer. It's the stuff of nightmares for a lot of people and understandably so.

Are there any secrets, any words of wisdom, for how to handle this situation when possibly millions of people are watching and the reporter displays obvious dissatisfaction with your answer and re-asks the question?

Yes, there are some techniques as well as mental constructs that are necessities at a time like this. But before we delve into them, watch this two- minute clip of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner being pepper-sprayed with the same question by Chris Wallace on yesterday's edition of Fox News Sunday.

Since this is a blog about media training and not politics, we're going to zero in on Geithner's technique and not whether or not he should have disclosed more about his doomsday strategy. I'm giving him an "A minus" for steadfastly holding his own:
  1. he gave the same answer each time, not wavering or adding unnecessary details on the 2nd and 3rd attempts by Wallace to crack his composure
  2. by not changing his response, Geithner eliminated the possibility of giving Wallace new facts to open up for yet more questions
  3. by not changing his response, Geithner did not undermine his credibility or confuse the audience with different responses, leaving them to wonder which answer was the "real" one
  4. he sounded confident, in control, as if he believed in and owned his message
  5. he didn't display anger, fidget in his chair or move forward physically as if to dare Wallace to ask him yet one more time
What the Treasury Secretary did not do that would have made his answer even stronger was to look into the camera and assure the American people that there are contingency plans in place and when, and if, it becomes necessary to discuss them publicly the Administration will do so. In other words, he should have framed his answer more directly so he did not appear evasive even while explaining Congress' role.

If I put my ex-producer's hat back on, of course, Wallace did what he needed to do for his Sunday broadcast. He's out to (a) make news and (b) get some needed answers for the American people. But if you listen carefully to the way Wallace framed his initial question, he immediately put Geithner on the hot seat by challenging him not to answer the question:  "You're not going to want to talk about this but I'm asking you a straight question and I'm counting on a straight answer." Score one for Chris because there was no way for Geithner to come out of that a winner unless he gave Wallace what he was after.

So here's the take-away message for you if you're ever in the unfortunate position of dodging repeated questioning on an issue you don't want to discuss - or can't for whatever reason. Hold your own, keep it short, repeat the same message and don't waver, fidget or raise your voice. And, if possible, frame your position at the top for the audience so they understand why you're not going to discuss the topic. For example, "our company policy is to never discuss rumors or innuendos."

And when the knot in your stomach continues to grow with each repeat of the question, remember this: Even a Chris Wallace will stop after three or four attempts because he doesn't want to come off looking like a bully. No reporter wants to ever risk the audience ultimately siding with you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Road To Interview Hell

Quick. Don't ponder this question. Just answer it from your gut: Five minutes from now you are eyeball to eyeball or on the phone with a tough, no-nonsense reporter. It doesn't matter whether this is a "soft" interview for a new company philanthropic project or a "hard" interview for a product launch with a lot of competitive pressure. What's your nightmare question you absolutely do not want to answer?

If your gut response is I can't think of any questions I can't handle you are on the road to Interview Hell. That road is paved with  landmine issues you won't navigate all that well and predictable issues you're complacently overlooking that you could identify in advance.

How can I be so sure of this? After over 20 years of prepping clients for all types of media interviews as well as a network news producer asking the questions, I can tell with you total certainty that there are always tricky questions that come up in an interview.

Whenever a client tells me with great confidence that they really don't have any tough questions they fear and/or they have all of the answers neatly figured out, I get nervous. Really nervous. Because that's not realistic. You might think you've got it all neatly covered, but what about a side-by-side competitive comparison? Are you going to start out by trashing your competition and spend practically no time talking about your product? How about pricing questions? As simple as they may appear to be, once I start probing clients, I invariably find out this particular question makes them very queasy when the reporter ignores their response sans actual price and comes back again for the specific number. Tough question? Maybe not for everyone, but if it sends shivers up your spine then it sure is for you.

So the next time you're prepping for an interview, don't just rely on the FAQ your PR, AR or IR teams have put together. Push yourself and honestly come up with the question or questions that are going to trip you up. That tiny little bit of extra effort very often makes the difference between a successful interview and one that you'll regret for weeks.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Answering Flakey Questions

By now there has been the requisite analysis and pontificating about whether Chris Wallace stepped over the line by asking Michele Bachmann if she is "a flake" on his Sunday morning Fox talkfest.

Should he have asked her that question? Should he have phrased it in a different way? What was he after with the question in the first place?

To me the more interesting question in the Wallace-Bachmann inbroglio is the fact that this has all of the hallmarks of the classic TV "moment" as producers call it.

First of all, Wallace's question was "the money question" because it's the wildcard and the type of question almost always guaranteed to produce news. And, not coincidentally, he chose to ask it at the end of the segment.

Second, Wallace asked that specific question to make it part of the record and he thought he had nothing to lose. As long as he asked it, it was out there whether or not Bachmann chose to respond. He never anticipated the backlash that question would provoke. BTW, while his use of the word "flake" was not an ideal choice what Wallace was trying to get at was Bachmann's history of inaccurate and inflammatory statements, which is a legitimate question to ask of any declared Presidential candidate.

Third, Wallace knew it was a "squirm" question with at least a 50-50 shot she'd physically respond with fidgets, uhms or some sense of visible discomfort. Tailor-made for live TV.

To Bachmann's credit she maintained her composure throughout, stating her qualifications and experience and not rising to the bait.  I must admit she surprised me because I did think some of her prior statements in the past year have indeed been flaky.

Could she have come up with a better response like broadening out her answer to talk about how any Presidential candidate these days will inevitably face "flaky questions" just like this one? Yes, but she held her own and that's the bottom line.

Ironically, Chris Wallace has perhaps the best money quote of them all with his post-interview assessment of what this type of question-answer scenario comes down to: ..."in the end it's really all about the answers and not the questions."

Wallace's statement is what you should care about and what you must think about every time you put yourself into the line of media fire. Do I know, really know, how I will perform when that weirdo question comes at me with a live television audience watching? There are three critically important components in this type of situation:
  1. your body language
  2. your tone of voice 
  3. what you say
All three of these must-haves constitute composure. It's what the viewers see and hear that formulates their opinion about you and that's the only thing you should care about in this situation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Owning Your Soundbites

We live in a soundbite-driven world. The demand is there to give the media what it wants - grabby, newsworthy and provocative quotes that can drive and frame a story.

Our most current "teachable moment" in the consequences of using and then waffling on a grabby soundbite comes from GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty.

There are two noteworthy media realities going on here. The first reality is that CNN moderator Jon King is pushing Pawlenty against the ropes. The media loves nothing more than a boxing match and reporters will find every opportunity to push you into the corner to defend your position, especially if it's a juicy headline grabber like "Obamneycare" which Governor Pawlenty went to great lengths to use over the weekend before this debate.

The second media reality is that reporters don't necessarily speak in soundbites but they do like to use the hot expressions of the moment. This year it's dialing back which is a variation on walking it back. Both mean the same thing - trying to explain away a position you took that now has you in squirming in the media headlights.

This may all seem painfully obvious now in the post-debate light of day but there is a worthwhile teachable moment here for any company spokesperson: if you go for the gusto with a super-charged soundbite you better be willing to stand up and defend it. Whether you're tempted to bury your competition with clever words and mashed-up phrases, remember that the media will take up your cause but not always to your liking. So it's always best to think about all of the consequences before it's too late.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What's Your Brand When You Answer Questions

People are no different than companies and products when it comes to brands. We all have them and we communicate them in a variety of ways, from our appearance to what we say and how we say it.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how you answer questions, particularly difficult issues. You can give a great presentation and then blow it big-time by bungling your way through a Q and A session where you might appear nervous or uncertain or even flippant. 

So how do you sound when you answer someone's questions? It doesn't matter if you're doing a media interview or you're addressing an issue at work? You will be judged on what comes out of your mouth and your demeanor. Do you sound tentative?  Do you give longwinded answers? Do you sound arrogant, impatient or annoyed to be addressing that issue? Do you give one-word answers? Are you prepared and on top of things? Would your audience believe you? Should your audience believe you?

If you've never thought about these things then it's time to start. Every time you open your mouth to speak you give big clues about yourself. How you answer questions is a reflection of you, your character, your brand.

Let's use Congressman Anthony Weiner, already the brunt of many jokes, as a good example of how people give off overt and subtle clues about their character (or lack thereof). Listen in the clip below as he calls a reporter a "jackass" because he's in the midst of a reporter feeding frenzy over his lame handling of his Twitter fiasco.

Remember Weiner called the press conference to dispose of the issue initially, then Weiner spent a week trying to explain away the issue. So now he can't blame the media for salivating over the story. What's most interesting here is how Weiner starts to lose his cool when the only thing the media is doing is what they do - they ask questions. His let me explain and appear the victim facade is quickly replaced with anger, hostility, disrespect. He looks arrogant and he sounds arrogant.

So ask yourself this: if you're ever in the line of fire - either at work or in an interview - how will you come across? What's the brand you want to convey and how do you actually sound? Not sure, then ask some friends at work or a PR colleague for some candid feedback. The message you communicate is always important but so is the messenger.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why Dumbing Down Is A Bad Strategy

A media training client recently asked me for help in dumbing down a complex process he wanted to explain in a TV interview. His reasoning was the reporter as well as the audience wouldn't be able to grasp the concept.

In theory, his strategy for simplifying his ideas is a sound one. What's wrong with his actual game plan, however, is how he's thinking about doing it: dumbing it down implies the audience is too stupid to get it and therein lies a huge problem.

There is a fundamental difference between simplifying something and being simplistic. Simplifying an abstract idea is challenging because you need to strip it down to its essence without eliminating the core ideas you need to get across. But if you are simplistic, then you're guilty of being excessively simple and risk missing the point altogether as well as boring and potentially insulting your audience.

Simple is tough to do. Take it from Jack Welch who has one of the best quotes I've ever seen on the subject: " You can't believe how hard it is for people to be simple. They worry that if they're simple, people will think they're simple-minded. In reality, it's the reverse."

The art of simplification is a valuable communication tool that every executive would do well to master in these complicated times.

So substitute the verb simplifying for dumbing down the next time you need to navigate a complicated idea or issue. Your audiences will appreciate it and you will be happier with the results.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Being More Present In An Interview

Media interviews are never one-dimensional.  They involve more than the obvious dynamic of the reporter's overt questions and your responses. There are always verbal as well as non-verbal clues journalists give off that most interviewees miss because they are not fully present during the interview.

Being present doesn't mean some transcendental state. What it does mean is that you are fully tuned in to all that is happening when you're talking to a reporter.  So if you are preoccupied with simply answering questions and trying to figure out what the reporter wants you to say, you won't recognize the wealth of information that is there for the taking.

If you are fully present and invested in your interview you will begin to hear and sense things in the reporter's behavior that you might otherwise miss. We're talking about valuable clues reporters give when they:
  • circle back every now and then on competitive questions, starting out broadly and then moving in for the side-by-side comparison with your Number One Darth Vader
  • stretch out a word that tells you their true state of mind as in "isn't this the second time you've tried to launch a similar product?"
  • shuffle papers and perfunctorily say "uh huh" while you're answering away on a phone interview
  • ignore everything you've said and ask no follow-up questions.
Those are great clues about the reporter's possible intentions and certainly good for you to know when you're talking to them. But you will miss them unless you are fully present and for that you need a solid gameplan so you can concentrate on that netherworld that is taking place right under the surface.

Your gameplan must include knowing your messages like you know your own name, being buttoned up on as many issues as you're able to identify and being fully confident that you know what you want the final outcome of your interview to be. Without all of those pieces of information comfortably at your disposal, you simply can't devote the level of attention to the interview that you really need to marshall.

Obviously, you can't know every question that's going to come your way, but if you are fully prepared you can be fully present.  The glimmers of insight and clarity you additionally glean can make a difference in how satisfied you will be with the story that results from your media moment.