Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The devil's in the complex question: Are you good on your feet with media?

I learned early on to look for the devil in the details of a two-part question from a reporter--one of my favorites used to put two disparate questions into two separate clauses of the same sentence, and woe be unto you if you didn't notice.

In "Watching a misquote in real time," King Kaufman offers a detailed breakdown of how the same thing happened to a 49ers linebacker.  The team had just lost a game, putting it at 0-5.  The question from a local NBC affiliate repoter was "“Is 0-5 insurmountable? Can you guys get back in this?”  And the full answer was "Absolutely not. I don’t think so. I know we still have a chance. Only thing I’m hanging my hat on is: We need to find a spark. Period.”

It's worth reading this breakdown, since Kaufman looks at how the resulting television show emphasized only part one of the answer--"Absolutely not"--and suggested that it referred to the second part of the two-part question, when the full answer suggests otherwise.  He reminds reporters:
It’s important to listen to the person you’re interviewing. That might sound silly, but for those of you who’ve never done it, it’s actually sometimes really difficult to do that. Scott had a lot to think about — not tripping as he and Spikes walked together, microphone placement, his back-pedaling camera person, what he was going to say next and so on — and actually catching which part of his question Spikes was responding to when he said “Absolutely not” was a tall order. Which is why you don’t ask questions like that. 
But reporters do ask questions like that, some intentionally, some in sloppy technique. I'd paraphrase that advice if you're the interviewee, speaking to a reporter on the fly:  It's important to listen to the person who's interviewing you. That might sound silly, but for those of you who haven't thought about it, it's actually sometimes really difficult to do that.  Here are some tips for recognizing and responding to complex questions:
  • Listen for verbal red flags:  I always listen for two-part questions ("Do you walk to work or do you carry your lunch?"), especially when the two parts are disparate topics or directions.  Other red flags are any question that presumes an answer ("You must be really happy now"), because your first impulse may be to make a short, unequivocal denial or agreement like "Absolutely not"--a short response that can be taken out of context.
  • Stop and ask a clarifying question or otherwise break apart the question:  "Which of those do you want me to answer first?" or "Let's go back to the first part of that question, so I can talk specifically about x."  If you're in a place where you can write down the questions, do it and refer to your notes. 
  • If the question is long and presumptive, make your answer a complete thought.  In this example, that would involve saying something like, "0-5 is absolutely not insurmountable. We're going to keep pushing." Even if the latter sentence were dropped, you've answered the presumptive question in a way that can't be easily edited.
  • Pause before you jump in with an answer, particularly when answering a compound question. Even a few seconds of reflection will help you avoid getting caught in this way.
My November 3 and 4 workshop, "Good on Your Feet," includes a significant portion on handling Q&A and other extemporaneous situations where you need to speak clearly but on the fly. Registration details are below.

UPDATE: King Kaufman was quick on the draw and said nice things about this post.
Learn how to be a dynamic speaker in my next two-day workshop, Good on Your Feet: A dynamic speaking skills workshop, November 3 and 4 in Washington, DC. I also offer one-on-one and group media interview skills training; just email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.

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