Five tips to being direct in tough interviews
On any given Sunday, on any given talk show, you’ll hear a stern looking politician (no matter the party affiliation) utter the phrase: “Let’s be clear…” Unfortunately, to my ears, this is an alert. INCOMING! It is an alert that this person is about to do the exact opposite of being clear. They are stalling, likely avoiding a direct answer to a question that, in their mind, might send a negative message to the audience. Using this expression, they hope to shape the audience’s opinion of whatever statement or non-answer that follows. And, if you didn’t notice this “Let’s be clear” tactic before, annoyingly you won’t be able to un-see it now. You’re welcome.
The point here is nothing political. This person is doing their job based on what is perceived to be acceptable to the public and expected by their supporters. But, when dealing with a controversial topic or difficult scenario, how do we best communicate through all the noise? In interviews in particular, it is possible to give honest answers without (lasting) negative repercussions. It will, in fact, be refreshing.
Here are five tips to being direct in tough interviews, even when it hurts.
Nothing takes the wind out of an aggressive line of questioning like agreement. If you’re asked something along the lines of “Was it a mistake to …?” Often, the best answer is something like “Yes. We understand we didn’t have enough information to make the best decision at the time. In the future, we’ll do X, Y, and Z, to avoid this scenario.” Obviously, it’s important to prepare for these in earnest. Anticipate. Anticipate. Anticipate.
2) “I don’t know” is a legitimate answer.
There is rarely a case in which guessing is the best response. However, it isn’t necessary to guess. You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s better to be honest (and perhaps look ignorant to something) in your answer rather than get caught later. There seem to be infinite examples of the latter.
3) Keep it brief.
Sometimes in an effort to skirt a direct answer to a question, an interviewee will just keep talking and talking, ending up in a random place (the Land of Word Salad), perhaps leading to the interviewer asking another unanticipated question. And when you’re not prepared, you make mistakes. This is not good for anyone’s brand. Keep it brief.
4) Only answer the question asked.
I learned this not as a reporter, but as a public information officer. When you’re being interviewed, you presumably know more than the interviewer about the topic. Don’t assume they know more than they do about a situation. While you want to be transparent, you don’t have to open doors on which nobody knocked. Listen closely to the question. Pause. Answer that question.
5) Ask a question of the interviewer.
Interviewers are human and generally prefer to have more conversational dialogue. So, one credibility-enhancing tactic is to ask the interviewer a question. This can be especially helpful in a taped interview. Try asking what the interviewer thinks the audience needs help understanding when it comes to X about your company, organization or campaign (choose a very specific area for which you’ve got the spot-on answer).
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