Friday, October 11, 2013

Media Interviewing: Don't accept the premise of every question

There is an old example I’ve used, and I’ve heard others use, in explaining how to respond to certain types of questions from reporters.  It's an exaggeration to make a point.  Here’s how it goes:

So, how long have you been beating your wife?

It’s one of those no-win questions.  If the person who was asked such a question says anything to the affirmative, obviously it will get worse from there. 

But to deny the allegations implied in the question, no matter what, the responder looks defensive. 

Before getting to the strategy required to handle such questions, let’s break the issue down.  It’s not uncommon for reporters to build an allegation into a question.  Sometimes those allegations reflect the personal attitudes of the journalist conducting the interview. Other times, the allegation is built into the question because that’s what some vocal critics might be saying.  In this way, the reporter can best get the response he or she wants.

If the interview is conducted on camera for television, keep in mind, a key objective of such questions is to capture your non-verbal reaction to the question.  Quite often, the photographer will make sure to have the lens zoomed in to magnify your facial expression to the question itself. 

So what to do?

First, don’t expect questions to be asked the way you want.  Expect the very premise of some questions to be accusatory.  With this in mind, control your facial expressions and reactions to outrageous questions or comments from interviewers.

Know that even if you make a certain facial expression to an innocent question, a studio editor can later juxtapose that expression with another segment of the interview so that it looks like a spontaneous reaction to a totally separate comment or question.

But here’s the meat.  Don’t accept the premise of every question.  Before you proceed to answer every question, assess whether or not the premise of the question is accurate.  If not, you need to point this out, or structure your response so that it clearly and quickly dispels that premise.

When it comes to answering questions where the premise if off target, the best response is two-fold:

1.       Explicitly and unapologetically address the validity of the premise of the question.  The key is to do this as constructively as possible.  It’s never a good idea to become combative or defensive in a media interview.

2.       Deliver the key points you need to make to address the issues involved with the reporter’s question.

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