Don’t make interviews tougher than they really are
Some of the people I work with in media skills training sessions make interviews harder than they need be.
Let me give you an example of what happens, using a real question from the grilling of much-criticised former Barclays Bank boss Bob Diamond by British parliamentarians.
Here’s a ‘question’ by MP John Mann:
Q: You’re in charge. People were suggesting impropriety. And you did not investigate it. Either you were complicit or you were grossly negligent or you were grossly incompetent.
Inexperienced interviewees hear the words ‘impropriety’, ‘negligent’ and ‘incompetent’ and feel obliged to defend themselves against the charge.
More experienced interviewees notice that in all his huffing and puffing, John Mann forgot to turn his comments into a question.
He makes a statement. The smart interviewee, listening really carefully, notices what’s happening. The smart interviewee doesn’t help the interviewer by accepting the implied question ‘were you negligent or incompetent?’ Instead the smart interviewee grabs the opportunity to make a statement of his/her own.
By not creating a hard-working question, John Mann gives Bob Diamond an escape route. Instead of having to defend himself, Diamond has the opportunity to talk about his principles, philosophy… anything. He settles for saying that the unethical behaviour of some bank employees was wrong.
His questioner returns to the fray, almost certainly disappointed not to have drawn blood.
But John Mann’s next question is – again – not a question.
Q: You’re in charge. You did not see what was going on. You’re incompetent.
Mann means his comments as a question. But he doesn’t force Diamond to make a direct response. Abrasive allegations only work if the interviewee responds to the implied question. Once again the smart interviewee notices Mann has delivered a statement. It’s another opportunity to reply with a confident statement of a strategic message.
But Diamond misses his opportunity. Instead, maybe riled by the personal attacks, he snaps back with ‘Is there a question?’
A mistake. Instead of occupying the time with a strategic statement supporting his case, Diamond hands the inititiative back to his challenger. And John Mann comes back smartly with:
Q: OK. Last time you said an incompetent executive would lose shares and bonuses. Will you forfeit them?
At last Mann has formulated a short, potent question. It’s a zinger. And Diamond is now facing the very question he doesn’t want to answer. He could get a 20 million pound payoff – and he’s not prepared to say he’ll forego the money.
We’ll never know whether Mann would have formulated such an effective question if Diamond had matched statement with statement, instead of pointing out that his challenger was letting him off the hook.
My advice to clients preparing for an interview is simple:
1 – active listening is the key to smart answers
2 – don’t do the interviewer’s work for him
3 – any statement from the interviewer gives you a platform to respond with your own statement
4 – avoid the ‘is there a question there?’ response – it may goad the interviewer into formulating a question you don’t want to answer
5 – up to a third of the ‘questions’ asked by journalists are really statements
6 – don’t miss a chance to deliver your strategic message