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.

Media Interviews Don’t Have Two Steering Wheels

I absolutely love this YouTube clip. The best way to watch it is to think of two people in a car, each of whom believes they have a steering wheel, a gas pedal and a brake, and each of whom believes they can steer the vehicle to their destination.


The journalist is steering the interview to why Adobe charges Australian users $1,400 more to download the same Creative Suite software than users in the United States. It seems like a reasonable question. After all, if the premise is true, it’s cheaper for Australian users to fly to Los Angeles to purchase a boxed copy than download the software from down under.

The CEO, however, doesn’t want to go there. He keeps trying to take the vehicle over a bridge to the destination that appeals to him—his belief that “the Creative Cloud is the future of creative.”

But the journalist ignores the bridge and keeps steering the vehicle to where he’d like it to go.

Who wins? In this case (and in many, many others I’ve seen), not the spokesperson.

By the end of this YouTube clip, other journalists start asking why Adobe charges more. The story then becomes:

There is only one steering wheel, one gas pedal and one brake during media interviews. The journalist ultimately controls all three. Some journalists exert more control than others, absolutely. But organizations that want to control destination and direction should buy advertising, not arrange media interviews.

The best interviews are carefully negotiated in advance, with the intent of building to win-win outcomes. With negotiation, Adobe would discover that the journalist is intensely curious about a pricing issue, and the pricing destination will need to be visited before any new destination can be considered.

If the company is unprepared to visit that destination, it should not conduct a news conference to announce a new product offering. The risk is too great. Any credible media training consultant would tell them that.

If, as a result of effective negotiation, the pricing issue is resolved with a positive announcement, the vehicle can then be driven over the new bridge of “the Creative Cloud as the future of creative.”

The journalist wins because the story can answer a question that the journalist clearly states “readers have been asking.”

The company potentially wins twice.

Not only could it have a positive announcement for Australian customers if pricing can be synchronized, it is demonstrating what lies over the bridge with a business partner that actually listens to their concerns.

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About the Author
Eric Bergman is Canada’s most experienced and credentialed media training consultant. Media training has been his core business for more than 25 years. During that time, thousands of spokespeople from five continents in the private, public, corporate, professional, entrepreneurial and not-for-profit sectors have benefited from Eric’s approach, coaching and feedback.
Eric Bergman

Eric holds a bachelor of professional arts in communication studies from Athabasca University and a two-year diploma in advertising and public relations from Grant MacEwan College.

He is an accredited business communicator (ABC), an accredited public relations practitioner (APR), and a master communicator (MC)—which is the highest distinction that can be bestowed upon a Canadian member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). In 2014, he was named a member of the College of Fellows of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS).

Contact Eric if you’re interested in applying his proven approach. Your spokespeople will gain the competence and confidence to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization every step of the way.