Anyone who has watched Judge Judy fire questions at someone from under an arched brow will know what a powerful tool questions can be. Most journalists will not be trying to trip you up, nevertheless, it's smart to be prepared for tough exchanges. Below you will find techniques used in tricky interviews, and how to respond to them like a pro.
Four effective ways to respond to tough questions
Whilst a good Spokesperson will be breaking bread with key journalists, there are always going to be reporters chasing a story that paints you as the villain.
Here are some tried and tested ways to respond to challenging or off-topic questions that might make an appearance:
Acknowledging the journalist’s questions but transitioning to another response (e.g. thank you for bringing that up, but….). A word of caution: this should only be used as a last resort if the journalist is asking you something completely outlandish. You do not want to be seen as dodging questions. Always answer if you can. Especially if it’s a yes or no question.
Bridging back to your key messages (e.g. ”yes, you are right to bring this up, as it closely relates to….”)
Increasing curiosity about something to prompt the journalist's next question (e.g. “that’s one of many interesting results we are seeing right now” prompting “what are the other results?”
This is to emphasize your key points (e.g. “If there’s just one thing you should take away with you today it’s”, “the heart of the matter is…”)
Seven tough question formats (with good responses)
- Hearsay questions
- Leading questions
- False dichotomy questions
- Negative repeat questions
- Speculative questions
- False fact questions
- Machine gun questions
1. Hearsay questions
Hearsay questions- until verified- are essentially gossip. They are an artful way of steering you off message: remember, always bridge back to the facts.
Examples of hearsay questions:
- Professor X from the University of XYZ said he saw you….
- Our sources tell us that….
- How do you respond to this random man on the street that said you were doing…
- At this time, it’s important that we focus on what we know, and what we know is….
- I can’t speak to something I do not know for a fact, but what we do know is….
- I can’t speak for that random man on the street, but the facts are...
2. Leading questions
When someone puts words in your mouth it can be frustrating, but with practice, you should be able to answer with grace. The key is not to argue or to repeat what they have said, but instead to answer with a positive point.
Examples of putting words in your mouth:
- Your language issue is affecting the industry at large, is it not?
- So you are saying that your CEO was right to respond in that way?
- What seems to be the issue here is….
- The information we have has led us to take … approach to this issue
3. False dichotomy questions
The world, as we know, has many shades of grey, but journalists may try and push you into a reductionist answer. Make sure you steer back to your key messages and away from the double bind. Use positive words, correct any inaccuracies (without repeating their negative points), and make sure to reject both scenarios if neither makes sense.
Example of false dichotomy question:
- If... happens, would you respond with A or B?
- Are you stupid or just plain ignorant?
- “There’s a third option that has not being listed”
- “There is an alternative to consider which is…”
4. Negative repeat questions
As a Spokesperson, you are a walking soundbite. Make sure those soundbites don’t contain negative comments or words. Negative repeat questions will come up a lot, so make sure you practice answering them.
Example of a negative repeat question:
- Tell us about the corporate disaster that happened here today
- Why is your …. policy so substandard?
- Could this be another ….gate scandal?
- Let me give you the information as we have it….
- Let me share with you exactly what has happened…
- The truth is….
5. Speculative questions
Speculative questions are designed to breathe life into unlikely scenarios. During an interview, it is important to stick to the facts and not be led down hypothetical rabbit holes. Where possible, steer the conversation towards the information you currently have.
Examples of speculative questions:
- If X happens, isn’t it likely Y
- In the X crisis of 2003 …. company did this, how can you know you won’t do this
- Can you guess how…. will pan out?
- It’s too early to tell, we are having a full evaluation to find out what has happened
- I wouldn’t want to speculate on that, but what we do know is…
- It’s important to deal with the facts as we know them, and the facts are….
6. False fact questions
Although a great many journalists do their due diligence, occasionally they have bad data. If a journalist offers information that is factually incorrect, politely correct them and bridge back to your positive point.
Examples of false fact questions:
- So only .05% of your annual budget goes towards the surrounding communities?
- So you are one of the companies that does not pay their taxes?
Perhaps I can help clarify that for your viewers (journalist's name), that is not true… in actual fact….
7. Machine gun questions
This is when a journalist fires rapid questions at you so you can’t get a word in edgeways (think: cop drama).
- “Please allow me to answer this question”
- “I’d appreciate it if you let me address this question”
Feeling prepared? Go get 'em, tiger.
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Carmen Guillen is Content Team Lead at OLIVER Agency. With over 7 years of experience as a copywriter and editor, Carmen has written for high-profile blogs and newspapers, and directed the content teams for fast-growing startups and NGOs, including PR.co’s blog and Unfold Magazine. Carmen is passionate about ethical business and artful storytelling.. Connect on LinkedIn or send an email