Answering Tough Questions

The importance of good leadership communications was not born of TV and radio and other recent forms of mass media. Napoleon mentions the importance of good communications as a leader in his writings on the French army; the ancient Greeks also made reference to the need for clear communications as long ago as 5 B.C.

The difference is that today, your words and images can “go viral,” exposing you to millions of people around the world through social media as well as through legacy outlets.  There is nowhere to hide. So, exactly how you handle the bad news as well as the good in your interviews will not be forgotten.

Politicians are on the receiving end of more tough questions from journalists than most business leaders, so we turned to a former Vice President of the Assemblée Nationale (France’s legislative body), whose experience handling tough questions dates back to the days before media training was invented, and whose first lessons came from the school of hard knocks.

Avoid “Formulas”

“It’s easy when you’re asked a tough question, to fall back on empty, formulaic responses,” he says, referring to what the French call la langue du bois or “wooden tongue talk.” You may be tempted to give the answer you think the interviewer wants from you here, even if its relationship to the truth is tenuous. These shortcuts may give you a brief reprieve and advance the interview to the next question, but they do not put a tough question to rest and this will inevitably come back to haunt you. Such escapist behavior can even result in making the topic of the tough question more important than it should be.

“Tough questions may present an opportunity to use the tried and true ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I cannot answer your question just now’,” says the ex-VP. “It’s a mark of humility that cannot go amiss. No one should be forced to talk about something he doesn’t want to or cannot discuss. An interview is not an inquisition.”

Situations like this should send you back to your communications department to find an answer and craft a better response. This is particularly important when participating in an interview in English, says the ex-VP. “Each language offers different possibilities for interpretation. English is very concrete, while French is much more abstract with a large palette of subtleties.”

Forewarned is Forearmed

At least as important as preparing your ideas is completing basic research on the media outlet and the journalist conducting the interview from sources publicly available online, particularly if it’s someone you’ve not met previously.

Things to ask and investigate about the journalist include: what is the interview about? What kinds of topics does the journalist cover in general? What kinds of articles have the journalist written about the topic you will be discussing? Are you the only person being interviewed for the story? If not, who else will be included?

Things to ask about the story which will result from the interview include what kind of audience will read or watch the interview? Will it be a long- or a short-form story or news segment, an investigative piece, a portrait or a Q&A? When will it be distributed (i.e., what is the time lag between the interview and its publication or broadcast)?

The more you can find out in advance, the more you can limit surprises, the better prepared and more relaxed you will be. This can only be beneficial for the final product.

Finally, you yourself probably already know the kinds of tough questions that will be asked if you think about it. That kind of self-knowledge, coupled with advance planning, frankness and humility will help you jump the hurdles posed by those tough questions.

Editor’s Note: This Article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author permission.

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Adrian Dearnell
Adrian Dearnellhttps://www.eurobusinessmedia.com/
I am a bilingual Franco-American financial journalist, with more than 20 years' experience in financial television. I have conducted over 4,000 face-to-face interviews with top CEOs, investors, analysts, and economists. In 2002, I co-founded EuroBusiness Media (EBM), a leading communications agency specialized in strategic messaging. I work with the largest global companies, helping CEOs and business leaders, from message creation to high-impact delivery.