ANSWERING QUESTIONS IN INTERVIEWS
Now we will discuss how to answer questions in interviews and presentations. Responding smartly and appropriately and using the right words are crucial in making your interview a success.
Do not ignore the questions
This is one of the areas people ignore and think they can just say what they want, ignoring the questions. That’s the cartoonish version of media training. A politician in the 90s ran a campaign for president, and no matter what somebody asked, “Sir, what’s your position on gun control? What’s your position on school prayer?” He would answer, “My position on school prayer: the first thing I’ll do as president is abolish the IRS. My position on gun control is the first thing I’ll do as president is abolish the IRS.
He had a message, and he stuck to his message. But he completely ignored the questions from the reporters, so they hated him. They thought he was a moron, and in every story, they reminded people that he was just a rich man’s son who flunked eighth grade and ran a vanity campaign. So, you cannot ignore the reporter’s questions, saying only what you want.
Pick the question leading to your message
There’s a very particular strategy you must follow when you’re answering questions. Sometimes a reporter may ask you two, three, or four questions. Don’t try to be the intelligent college professor and say, “Let me take your fourth question and then your third question.” Also, don’t take the most exciting or intellectually challenging question.
This isn’t a check of your intelligence or knowledge. This is about the audience and how you will help them by delivering your target messages most explicitly. So, pick the question that helps you get back to your message points as quickly as possible. You’re not saying that you are not going to answer the rest of the questions. They can ask again, but nobody could accuse you of dodging questions if you answered even one of the four questions.
Have a cheat sheet
Another big tip that is critically important for any interview over the telephone is to have a cheat sheet. Have all your notes and message points right in front of you. Your eyes should be staring at your messages. It sounds obvious, but people usually don’t do it. They continue to email, read different web pages, and handle text messages while looking at their phone while doing an interview.
What comes out of your mouth is often a function of what goes in your eyes. So, if you want maximum control over the outcomes in the interview, you’re far better off with your eyes focused on your message points. Stare at them.
During a TV interview, you wouldn’t be holding a sheet of paper in front of your face, but you should be looking at it right before the interview starts; if you’re driving to the TV station or the press conference, you should be staring at your message.
Don’t repeat the negatives of the question
The next thing which is essential when you’re answering questions is that you don’t repeat the negatives in the question. This has stripped up a lot of very successful CEOs and politicians. Richard Nixon repeated negative premises, saying no, the president is not a crook. I am not a crook. Anytime you repeat a negative premise in an edited media interview, you’re asking for trouble because only the harmful premise might get into the final story.
Tony Miller, the former CEO of BP during the gulf spill, was asked, “Are we going to make good on all the legal claims against you and all the lawsuits?” He said, “We want to help people, the economy, and entrepreneurs who have been harmed.” Everything they said was brilliant. No one would object to it. Everything was fine. Then the question was, “You have not read about the frivolous lawsuits?” And he said, “Well, hey, it’s America. Of course, they’ll be frivolous lawsuits, but I want to stress …” and for the next 10 minutes, all great content and messages. What was the only thing put in the final story? “Hey, it’s America? Of course, they’ll be frivolous lawsuits,” he repeated for negative, which was quoted.
We will discuss in the next section exactly why it was quoted and how you can control it. So please do not repeat the negative questions or the negative assumptions when you’re answering.
Don’t hesitate to say I don’t know
There is one answer that’s often a great one, and it’s avoided. If you’re asked a question and don’t know the answer, just state “I don’t know.” Don’t act embarrassed, flustered, get red or apologize, but say, “I don’t have any idea about it,” and then talk about something that is relevant to the question and takes you close to your message. That’s the way to work out such a question. Don’t lie by saying I don’t know when you do know, just because it’s a topic you’re not interested in talking about.
Don’t predict the future
If a reporter asks you to predict the future, the fact is you don’t know the future. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” and then bridging to something relevant. The reporter can’t claim that you didn’t answer, and they’re unlikely to quote you on that. Unless it’s something undeniable, you’re running for President of the United States, and the reporter asks you, “please name the Prime Minister of Great Britain.” Here you can’t say “I don’t know.”
While answering the reporter’s questions, some strategies are crucial to follow to get your desired message in the final story. Do not ignore the reporter’s questions, focusing on saying only what you want to deliver. If the reporter has multiple questions in front of you at a time, pick the one leading to your message quickly. Have a cheat sheet of your focus messages in front of you, so you do not lose sight of them at any point during the interview. Do not repeat the negatives of the questions as there are high chances you get quoted with them. If you don’t know the answer to some questions, do not hesitate to say, “I don’t know.” Do not predict the future in your answers, as you may lose your authenticity if you predict wrong.