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Tough questions, robust answers

If you have thought hard enough about your audience, you should be able to anticipate the questions people will want to ask. Never wing it. Remember that in public every word counts, and can count against you, so you need to weigh every word carefully.

Most importantly, prepare a concise answer to the ‘so what?’ question. Be ready to explain, in very simple terms, what it is you are really saying.

I’m amazed at how often CEOs and leaders cannot answer simply the most basic questions about their organizations. ‘What does your company do?’ That is a question I’ve seen floor CEOs in the past. The problem is they’re so close to their own companies and situations that they literally can’t see the wood for the trees. They fall into the trap of thinking that because they’re immersed in their own organizations and its issues, they should be able to answer questions at any time from anybody. But it is these simple questions that can often cause the most trouble. Difficult questions have probably already received some thinking time. Make sure that you can answer the basic questions, and trial them on friends and relatives. Make sure they give the thumbs up and that your answers are simple, clear and direct.

Think very hard about probable audience attitudes and try to see the world the way they see it. What tough questions might they put to you and what would your key messages be for each? If some of these questions are likely to distract from your key themes, then learn how to answer the questions briefly and bridge back to your main messages. Make sure the questions are potent, and if possible practise with somebody else lobbing you these difficult questions in a hostile manner.

Very often, I have seen executives formulate much better answers that they have then incorporated into their speeches, when undergoing this kind of ‘hostile’ practice. It is these tough questions that have the power to concentrate the mind and get you to focus on the real issues. Not only must your response be accurate, honest and forthright, but you must look honest and confident when delivering your answers.

This is especially true when you are live on air being delivered hostile questions by a journalist. You have to remember who your real audience is, and not appear shifty and guilty. You’re not speaking to the journalist, you’re speaking to people out there. Remember that they are watching you and they will be making judgements not only on your words but on your appearance.

Practise giving the answer to these questions out loud in front of colleagues or friends, and get them to tell you how convincing you sound when answering these tough questions. Video yourself and check whether you look shifty, uncomfortable or distracted.

Go it alone if you must, but I highly recommend getting help from professionals before dealing with the media. Media training is essential in today’s world, and you need to make sure that you can deal with radio, television, pre-recorded sessions, on-location sessions, studio sessions, remote locations or radio cars – all of them have special features and you need to be familiar with them all if you want to be comfortable and confident.

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