Giving great answers when the pressure’s on

This week, we’ve invited our friend and media training guru Michael Dodd to guest blog on how to answer what he likes to call ‘blowtorch-on-the-belly questions’.

The tragedy of London’s Grenfell Tower inferno has raised all sorts of difficult questions for the housing industry and beyond. Questions still being asked include:

“Why’s it taking so long to announce the final death toll?”

“How could the cladding on the tower – which burned so ferociously in the blaze claiming at least 80 lives – possibly have complied with proper safety regulations?”

“Why weren’t long ladders available to rescue those trapped high up?”

“Should cladding now be removed from all housing blocks as a precaution?”

“Is it right to advise residents to stay in their flats during a fire – with just a wet towel under the door – rather than escape?”

Regardless of what industry you’re in, if you find yourself on the receiving end of this kind of questioning you need to be properly prepared. Training can put you in the best position to answer questions effectively and to convey all the critical information you need to get across – exactly what didn’t happen in in many interviews the case of Grenfell.

This isn’t about solely about protecting an organisation’s reputation, it’s also about having the skills to get across facts and serious answers when emotions are running high and time is short. The people affected in a crisis deserve a response, and good media training helps you help them by using the media as a source of information delivery.

In my native Australia, where I was trained as a broadcast journalist to subject interviewees to maximum pressure, this became known as “blowtorch-on-the-belly” questioning. The good news is that standing up to this tactic – whether they’re on live TV shows or elsewhere – is possible.

As a ‘recovering journalist’ who now helps clients formulate the best possible answers to blowtorch-style questions, there’s one piece of good news… whether facing questions from journalist, officials, public inquiries or stakeholders, dealing with this style of questioning is a learnable skill.

Within the envelope of truth in any situation, there are great and atrocious ways of answering tough questions. I discovered this looking back over my time as both a political and foreign correspondent, examining why some people collapsed under tough questioning while others sailed through it like a well-skippered yacht in a gentle breeze.

Key factors included planning, preparation and practice – but there are also golden formulae to help structure great answers. Underpinning what I call the First Golden Formula is the principle of truthfully acknowledging the bad, and then gravitating towards a relevant positive message.

One vital thing to realise is that answering tough questions is more than just giving accurate information, important though that of course is. Your answers should naturally contain exact truths. If they don’t, you can look like the slimiest of slimy politicians, and nobody wants to look like that.

But accurate information alone is usually not enough to make the right impression and properly reassure skeptical listeners enough to stop conjecture and rumour. This is not always obvious to professionals in the industry.

Giving great answers involves getting across an important message – every time.

Exactly what that message should be for each question is something you can be guided toward, and it’s where media master class sessions, such as those I run in conjunction with Creative Bridge, can make the crucial difference.

Here’s a sporting analogy that might help. To come across well while under scrutiny, your organisation faces the same challenge as a football team: that is, to win you have to score at least one goal.

But when it comes to answering tough questions, many professionals don’t score any goals – or don’t even try. They may well give some information, but that doesn’t mean they will come out as winners or help their questioners and their wider audiences as much as they should.

You frequently see it on the BBC’s Newsnight and other programmes and meetings at work at job interviews, career appraisals maybe even around the boardroom table. The ‘victim’s’ approach is often to go into that meeting or phone call with a challenging official, colleague or probing journalist thinking: “I hope they’ll ask the RIGHT questions.”

Alas, your questioners often see their job as being to ask you the WRONG questions. If you just defend without kicking goals, you’ll potentially emerge badly. To come out well, you need the right mindset to guide the conversation towards winning outcomes for you and your questioners – and any wider TV/social media audience beyond.

Fundamental to this is the realisation that when you’re being asked tough questions, there are always positive and helpful things you can say that will benefit others involved. These often involve going beyond the question. This is helpful providing you deal effectively with the tough question in the first part of your reply.

However dire a situation, in a professional conversation there are always goals you can score for the benefit of all. And surprisingly to some, part of scoring those goals involves answering those tough questions head-on – or at the very least, explaining why you can’t.

This involves getting across that message on every question. The really good news is that the golden formulae can be deployed in every challenging professional conversation.

You can learn how to apply these golden formulae in every possible situation during the master class sessions – one-to-one, in small groups or at company conferences.

Test and then surprise yourself by effectively responding to the hottest of blowtorch-on-the-belly questions… for the benefit of you, your organisation, your listeners and the audience beyond.

By Michael Dodd, who runs media response masterclasses in conjunction with Creative Bridge, and author of ‘Great Answers to Tough Questions at Work‘, published by Wiley.