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13. Question and Answer

It's easy if you know the answers.

óJoseph A. Cooper, businessman

My father used to remind his children of this simple truth every time we took exams. Of course, he was right.

"But," clients moan, "what if they ask me something I don't know?" The simple answer is to bridge to something you do know.

Allen Weiner of Communication Development Associates, Inc., helps allay executives' fears too. "It is just like high school," he explains. "There are four types of questions: A direct question demanding information is like a fill-in-the-blank. A demand for a 'yes' or 'no' is simply a true or false. An open-ended question calls for the blue book essay approach. A multiple-choice question gives you a choice." Nothing could be easier than that, as long as you've studied and are prepared!

The Q&A (question and answer portion) is often the part both reporters and audiences look forward to the most. Your speech or announcement is just a one-way conversation until they get to ask their questions. In press conferences, the press often just waits until the remarks are over before they turn on the cameras or begin taking notes.

According to former San Francisco news anchor Fred LaCosse, journalists fall into a number of types depending on their styles.

The Machine Gunner is the type of interviewer who likes to fire off several questions all at once to bewilder and frustrate you. Take control of the interview, and choose one question to answer. Then shut up.

Be careful not to let the Intruder confuse you. The Intruder never allows you to finish a thought. You are midway through your message when another question is thrown your way. Take control and finish a thought and then wait for the next question.

The Paraphraser is like the game Telephone. When your message is repeated, it often comes out antagonistic and wrong. Make sure you always correct the reporter right then and there.

The Softsoaper is a smoothie. He or she is super friendly, but stay alert; remember that nothing is ever off the record.

Hostile is an understatement for the Bully. This one is a combination of several types of reporters, plus a few extra nasty habits. Take control, stay calm, and say politely that you are happy to answer the questions if given the opportunity, otherwise offer to reschedule.

The Sneak always has tricks up his or her sleeve. Stay on your toes and refer back to your message.

The Rookie is an unprepared reporter who requires you to give a lot of background information, which can keep you from getting to the messages you want to convey.

The Old Horse is a reporter who is tired of doing the same old stories. Be careful not to mimic him and bore everyone. Establish your own level of energy and keep it up.

Don't let your guard down when dealing with the Pro. But appreciate the reality that he or she will give you the opportunity to use your good material.

I recommend thinking of journalists as your boss or your mother-in-law. Nice as he or she is, never forget who they are and where their loyalties lie.

Considered the original "Teflon President" because they said nothing stuck, President Ronald Reagan is a good role model for speakers who are often put on the spot. He pioneered the practice of listening intently to a difficult question. Then he began his answer in the direction of the interrogator, but would finish his answer looking at a more sympathetic member of the press. In essence, he took the floor from the interrogator and avoided getting locked into one-on-one verbal combat.

Bridging the perfect answer is given in a similar manner. It begins with an acknowledgment of the question, then bridges to one of the messages you came to give. We call these SOCOS (Single Overriding Communication Objective Sound bites). They are the three to five bottom-line message points that you want the audience to take home with them. Just choose the one most appropriate to the question and bridge to it.

It is thought that an and is always a better bridge than a but, which seems to deny or invalidate the whole acknowledgment.

Flagging is a technique that alerts your audience that something important is coming. It is a phrase that sets them up to listen; such as, "I'll never forget the time that..." or "My most embarrassing moment was...."

Another way that the speaker maintains control of the situation is by addressing the question rather than answering it. Whether the question is a softball, a hardball, or a curve, you can hit it out of the park with a succinct, quotable statement that addresses the question clearly and concisely.

Many politicians make the mistake of giving their SOCOS while seeming to ignore the question. It is much more skillful to use the question to get to your answer. The audience is much more satisfied that you at least addressed the question even if you didn't answer it.

Yogi Berra got around the press once by announcing, before they had a chance to even ask why his team lost a particularly difficult game, "If you ask me a question I don't know, I'm not going to answer."

Of course, everyone isn't Yogi Berra, but the press are people too, and being able to keep your candor, compassion, and humor in any situation garners the respect and admiration of the press and audiences alike.

When there are no questions, one executive usually gets a laugh with, "I've either been exceptionally clear or very confusing."

The practice of repeating a question from the podium is usually very much appreciated by an audience who may not have been able to hear it. Repeating the questions also buys you time as a speaker to think of an answer and allows you to very subtly paraphrase the question to make it more concise and easier to answer. But do it subtly to keep the audience on your side.

I remember once when Ann Landers guested on Regis Philbin's AM Los Angeles, she asked every caller to repeat the question. As the associate producer, I asked her during a commercial break if moving the speaker closer would help her hear the questions better. She smiled and said, "Honey, I can hear perfectly well. I just need a little time to consider my answer and the caller needs time to clarify her question."

In both answering audience and media questions, beware of repeating or using negative or loaded words. Don't let the questioner put words in your mouth, even in denial. Remember that it was President Nixon who was the first to mention the "c" word, "crook." "I am not a crook," headlined every newspaper in the country. Choose your own positive expression of innocence, honesty, and sincerity.

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