Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Media interview smarts: Do you have to answer the question?

Not sure whether to dodge or address the reporter's question? You might want to learn more about how the audience sees the question-dodger, instead of just worrying about outwitting that reporter.

Science Friday looked at the psychology behind detecting the artful dodge in media interviews recently, and it's worth listening to the interview to get insights. Todd Rogers, one of the researchers, explains it here:
...we undertook a series of experiments in which we examined the conditions under which speakers succeed in answering questions that are different than the ones that they are actually asked. What we found was that, pretty frighteningly, observers have a very difficult time detecting when a speaker answers a question that is different, though similar, to the question they were actually asked. 
For example, if they were asked “What are you going to do about illegal drug use” and they say “we need universal health care because …” observers fail to realize that the speaker answered the wrong question and so observers rate the speaker just as honest and trustworthy as if the speaker had actually been asked about healthcare. And we found that answering the right question poorly is worse than answering the wrong question well. So delivering a stuttering, flub of a response that is direct and honest is punished, relative to answering a totally different question, but answering it fluently.
But audiences aren't that easily fooled all the time. According to the research, listeners and viewers get better at detecting the dodge in your answer in certain situations: 
  • When they are intent on detecting the relevance of your answer to the question, versus focusing on the topic at hand; 
  • When the question is superimposed on the video screen in writing while you are answering, as a reminder; and 
  • When the speaker egregiously ignores the question and answers something completely unrelated. 
Because of those findings, the researchers recommend that questions as stated be superimposed over video of politicians as they answer them in televised debates. That won't happen in your interviews, but remember that, even if the reporter doesn't stop you, the audience won't buy what you're selling if you veer too far from the answer.

At that point, as your trainer, I'd have to ask: What's your goal? To try to outwit the questioner or to convey credibility? In this case, you may be trading one for the other. It's far better to address the question, even if you don't like it and are not going to answer it, and explain why an answer is not forthcoming. (In some situations, that may be exactly the right thing to do--but you still need to address the question.)

You can read about these studies here and watch a short video of Rogers explaining the findings below. Looking for media training that teaches you how to participate effectively, rather than dodge, an interview? Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

(Photo by Losevsky Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com)

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