Seasoned business pros and corporate executives invest heavily in media training so they can deliver their messages clearly. Their calm, unflappable demeanor comes after intensive preparation and practice. The best responses sometimes contain common sense soundbites and turns of phrase that are carefully crafted in advance so they can be rolled off the tongue at just the right time.
The lessons from media training apply equally in everyday business settings. You too can learn to be more confident when facing a tough situation. Here are a few tips.
Don’t Repeat a Negative – Reframe it.
A PR colleague once told me a great story about how he reframed a tough question during a media interview. The reporter asked if the PR guy trained corporate executives to lie. His answer was, “No. I teach them how to tell the truth.” When asked a negative question, most people repeat the falsehood to deny it, as in, “No, I don’t teach people how to lie.” The problem is that when you repeat the negative frame, you reinforce it. Let’s take another example. Say you are late for a meeting and your boss says, “Well, Ms. Smith, you’re late once again.” Instead of saying, “I’m sorry I’m late,” you might frame it as, “There has been a problem on my bus route. I will have to find a better way to get to work.” With this reply, you acknowledge the concern but redirect attention away from a transgression onto positive action you’ll take to correct the problem. (And you’d better find that speedier bus route.)
Answering the Difficult Question
Every day we are asked questions we don’t want to or perhaps cannot answer. Colleagues may ask about strategy or personnel moves we might be planning to make but aren’t ready to announce. Your boss may ask for information you don’t have and can’t get. Just because a question is asked does not mean you have to answer it.
One of the best ways to tell people that you don’t want to comment or talk about something is simply to say, “I don’t have any information or an opinion that I can share right now. When I do, I’ll let you know.” Then go back to what you want to talk about.
Let’s say you were up for a promotion and you didn’t get it. Dianne in Purchasing sees you in the break room and says,” Gosh, you must be disappointed. What happened with that promotion?” Your answer might be to smile and say, “You win some and you lose some.” One caveat. If your boss is asking about where a report is, you better answer. If, however, she asks you about your sick father and you don’t really want to get into it, simply say, “Doing as well as can be expected. Thanks for asking.”
Bridges are Your Friend
Another way to deal with difficult questions is to use the question as a bridge to what you can and do want to talk about.
Let’s say you are making a presentation to the Management Committee about your research on venues for your company’s annual meeting. In the middle of your presentation, the COO asks what you think about the cost-cutting measure that the company is implementing. You weren’t expecting that question, and don’t want to answer because you disagree with the plan.
You could say, “That’s a great question, because one of the factors we looked at in venue selection was cost. Let me share with you our recommendations.” In this way, you’ve acknowledged the question and can use it to find a way back to what you really want to talk about.
Deferring Your Response
There is a joke in the PR business:
Journalist: “How many PR folks does it take to change a light bulb?”
PR Person: “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you.”
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something. Nothing is worse than making something up or lying. In the end, lies tend to be revealed, and as they say, the cover-up is often worse than the original deed. If you are in a situation where you should know something but don’t, acknowledge that and then tell the person you will get the answer for them. In the case of the COO pressing you for your thoughts on the new cost-cutting policy, you could say that you haven’t fully processed its implications and would like to get back to her on that. Then you could say, “It’s an important question, what are you hearing from others?”
When asked a tough question or one that you weren’t prepared for, try to maintain a neutral demeanor. If you feel off-balance, take a breath and say something like, “That’s an interesting question.” You can also ask someone to repeat the question, or you can ask another one: “I am curious, why do you ask?” All of these efforts give you some time to think about your response.
Avoid Hemming and Hawing
One of the most difficult things to do when faced with hostile or difficult questions is to hold your ground and not get rattled. Look your questioner in the eye (if you are uncomfortable doing so, look at their eyebrows or forehead), and pause and frame your response. Avoid looking up or downward or using lots of ums and ahs. This will project a lack of confidence or may be read as shiftiness.
Being in the hot seat is tough. But you can keep your cool by realizing you are in control. What are some ways you have learned to deal with being put on the spot?