The fundamental skill of answering questions effectively

After more than 25 years of examining the concept and teaching it successfully, I am completely convinced that the most important thing we can teach presenters and spokespeople alike is to pause, answer the question, and stop talking.

First of all, it offers protection during media interviews and hostile exchanges during all forms of presentations, when being quoted out of context or having words twisted is an issue.

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If you've ever given evidence at a trial or examination for discovery — and you were coached by a lawyer prior to giving that evidence — you were undoubtedly told to pause and think about the question asked prior to ever opening your mouth. You were then told to answer the question asked and that question only. Then you were told to stop talking. (Although a lawyer may tell you to "shut up," the net result is exactly the same.)

Does your legal counsel tell you to pause-answer-stop because he or she wants you to reduce or eliminate your credibility as a witness? No, the lawyer wants you to protect yourself and protect your credibility.

Does the lawyer want you to pause-answer-stop so that you can put the case or organization at risk, which will then translate into increased billable hours? No. Although that's a bit tougher to answer (especially the part about more billable hours), the lawyer tells you to pause-answer-stop so you can protect the organization.

If pause-answer-stop offers protection in a court of law, wouldn't it offer similar protection in a court of public opinion when someone is answering questions from a print journalist, or when a presenter is answering questions from a hostile community group, a semi-hostile management team, or a board of directors?

It can. And it does. If you wish to reduce the risk of being quoted out of context by print journalists, the simplest solution is to reduce the context. Stop talking.

Communicate More Effectively
But beyond that, pause-answer-stop enables someone to communicate more effectively. By asking more questions, the person or people receiving the information can better educate themselves about the topic in question to create better understanding.

Some years ago, we decided to put ceramic tile in our entranceway and kitchen. We were undecided about whether to do the job ourselves or to hire a contractor.

One evening, I went to my local Home Depot to do some research. I had the good fortune of encountering a very confident young man who had obviously installed a lot of ceramic tile. How did I know he was confident? He did not feel compelled to talk endlessly whenever I asked him a question.

In fact, he simply answered each question and stopped talking, waiting patiently for the next question.

In the 15 or 20 minutes that we chatted, I easily asked more than 100 questions. My son was with me and, as we were walking out of the store he remarked: "Dad, that was amazing. I can't believe how much I learned. I know exactly how to install tiles and what needs to be done. You asked great questions."

Actually, I didn't ask great questions. I was simply given the opportunity to ask a lot of questions -- which I would never have gotten if the person answering did not pause-answer-stop.

We ended up hiring someone to install the tiles, so some could argue that he lost a sale and didn't achieve his organization's objectives. However, that's short-sighted. The reason? Based on that experience, this local Home Depot is my first stop whenever I'm even thinking about any kind of improvement to our home. I don't know who's coaching them, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the ability of a number of their staff to answer questions clearly, concisely and effectively.

The same applies to other situations. Want a reporter to trust you? Want the management team or board of directors to trust that you'll deliver? Want to be more transparent? Teach yourself the same simple tactic.

Pause. Answer the question asked and only the question asked. Stop talking.


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Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS is Canada's most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He coached his first spokespeople in 1981 and, for more than 25 years, media training and presentation skills training have been his core business. He has helped thousands of presenters and spokespeople from five continents answer questions clearly, concisely and effectively.

Contact him if you're interested in applying his unique approach to media training to help your spokespeople build better relationships with journalists, achieve strategic communication outcomes, and protect themselves and your organization at all times.

Bridging to Messages on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList

I have often said that the skill of answering questions is the least developed skill in human interpersonal communication. And it’s a skill I believe we could (and should) continually hone. As a general statement, we could all benefit by constantly working to improve how we answer the questions we’re asked.

We all know that politicians are a category unto themselves when it comes to being terrible at answering questions. But Florida governor Rick Scott, the politician on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList in this video clip, is in a league of his own.



When I watched this video the first time, I recalled many conversations I’ve had over the years with my PR colleagues who, when I’ve questioned the value of bridging to messages instead of clearly and concisely answering questions, have said to me: “Politicians do it all the time.”

Yes, they do. But as Anderson Cooper aptly points out, ignoring questions “doesn’t really work. It just insults everyone’s intelligence.” And the insult can apply to everyone—a journalist in a scrum, an employee at a town hall, an upset or confused neighbour at a public meeting, or a sales prospect across the desk.

Cooper then asks: “What if people in other professions started doing this?”

For example, if a teacher is asked a question in class, imagine that he or she keeps repeating that “attendance is up … attendance is up.”

Or imagine that, when asked by a patient if he or she is dying, a physician keeps repeating “I’m appreciative of everyone who comes to see me.”

Unlike virtually everyone else, politicians can get away with the non-transparent tactic of talking about “what’s really important” because they live in a gilded world built on the twin pillars of blind loyalty and least objectionable programming. It's time we realized that other industries do not have this luxury.

In all democracies, there are people who are blindly loyal and have voted for one political party their entire lives. They will continue to vote for that party, regardless of whether a convicted felon or a narcissistic blowhard is leading it.

For the vast majority of the rest of us, the choice is not for the most desirable candidate, but the least objectionable. The 2016 US presidential election was a perfect case in point. How many millions of people who are not blindly loyal to a political party actually voted for someone they wanted in the White House? But of all the elections in which I've personally voted since 1976, there have been only one or two candidates for whom I have been rooting. In virtually every other election, I find myself holding my nose and voting for the best of a bad lot.

Politicians may be able to get away with not answering questions, but for the vast majority of the world, for which transparency is a growing issue, answering questions will continue to trump bridging to messages each and every time.

Trump, Ink by the Barrel, and Eyballs by the Millions

Here we are, on the first official working day of the Trump presidency, and already time-tested traditions in media relations are being tested yet again.

The president, whose focus on the size of anything and everything is unparalleled by any president I've personally witnessed (and I remember the day JFK was assassinated; I couldn't understand why The Friendly Giant was pre-empted), will quickly pick a fight with any media outlet that provides alternatives to his "facts."

It began with the president proudly tweeting that the ratings for the inauguration reached 31 million. Some would think that's a fairly large audience. But the "alternative" fact is that more than 90 per cent of Americans didn't tune in. Two hundred eighty-seven million Americans didn't care, had better things to do, or were organizing protests to watch the inauguration.

Then we get White House press secretary Sean Spicer ripping a strip off the media in his first full introduction to them. His behaviour was later defended by another member of the team, who said he was simply presenting alternative facts.



As a communications professional, my heart goes out to Spicer. He has gotten his hands on one of the world's plums as press secretary, but it's both good news and bad. I hope he finds a balance that meets the needs of the administration but doesn't permanently damage his credibility with those on who he depends for a successful career in media relations.

The good news is that he can always put that job on his resume. The bad news is that nobody may hire him in the future if he destroys relationships with journalists during his tenure at the White House.

I don't know who coined the adage "I try to never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and newsprint by the ton," but that adage is going to be tested unlike anything I've seen in my 35-year career.

Ironically, the thin skin of the president and his White House may work to our advantage. If that group is so focused on fighting with journalists, maybe they won't have the time to pick fights with the likes of China, Pakistan, India or Russia—or anyone else in possession of bigger sticks than your average White House press corps.

Time will tell. And we can only hope.