When was the last time you watched a politician being interviewed on television and thought to yourself, “they didn’t answer the question, they’re not answering the question”? It’s frustrating to see, and it happens far more often than it should. And it can even happen to you at your next interview.

But there’s a simple reason that this situation occurs again and again. And you’ve already hit on it.

You didn’t answer the question.

Don’t be like Merriman

Reporters want an answer. When they have a question, they expect to get an answer that will satisfy them, and until they do, they will keep asking it again and again. Eventually, you may get flustered and lash out, like the head of the Australian wool industry, Wal Merriman.

During his interview, Merriman was asked by a reporter about why he secretly watched farmers in a focus group through a one-way mirror, as the participants in the focus groups are meant to remain anonymous.

Merriman’s response? He swore at the reporter to ‘f*ck off’ and called him a ‘useless prick.’

He clearly took the question personally and lost his cool, something you should never do in front of reporters that are looking for colour, missteps, and mistakes to jazz up otherwise very boring stories. In this case, Merriman was already being questioned about an ethical breach, but instead of using the opportunity to deflect a potentially damaging story, he has now made himself into the bad guy.

It’s nothing personal

The biggest problem you’ll face in a tough interview is keeping the personal out of it. It’s easy to become defensive when the harder questions are asked.  The reporter is asking questions to build a story and if they can get a rise out of you while they’re doing it, even better. To keep the interview in control, you have to treat it like a debate: play the issue, not the reporter. This mindset will ensure you keep a level head. You need to stay committed to answering the questions briefly and then spending the rest of your answers delivering your messages and telling your stories.

What’s the answer?

A hard question can leave you stumped, or worse, scrambling for a response. If your messages are already prepared, your initial answer just needs a lead in, so here are some methods for handling a tough interview.

Bridging and Flagging

“That’s not for me to comment on, but what I can say is…”

“That’s interesting but the most important thing to remember is…”

“That’s an issue for others, but what I can outline today is…”

This method is acceptable for a crisis, but not something I recommend outside of that circumstance. Australian politicians use it a lot to skirt around issues and not take a position, so if you’ve got slightly higher PR goals than an Australian politician, try answering or satisfying questions with one or two sentences, say 15 percent of your answer and spend the rest of your answer telling your story or delivering your messages.

Change Context to Gain Control

Treat the interview like a debate, not a conversation. Answer questions briefly and change the context to your stories and your messages.

Here’s a few ways to answer a question and take the heat out of it.

Agree

“Yes, that’s right.”

“You are absolutely right, we got that wrong and it’s been a tragedy.”

Agreeing with a reporter is a great way to stop a long line of questioning on a tough topic.  If your organisation is prepared to concede or admit fault, do so quickly and move to your message.

Looking back on his brain fade, Merriman uses this method when asked whether he thought he breached the code when he swore at a journalist. He said, “In that instance, by taking offence to the journalist, yes.”

Disagree

“That’s not what people are telling me at the scene.” 

“That’s not the point of view of most employees…”

In the spirit of any good debate or contest of ideas, it is totally fine to disagree with a journalist.  Don’t be afraid to do it; they spend their whole life arguing with people.  Disagreeing is answering the question and educating the reporter and public.  Once you create this new context, go on and deliver your messages and tell your stories.

Clarify Context

“That may have been the case last year, but the not-for-profit funding model has changed considerably…”

Clarifying context is a great way to pay some respect to the question and then build from that point into a new context which reaffirms your messages and stories.  Remember, you’re the expert and you have every right to change the context of a question that is asked to something more relevant to the topic.

Correct inaccuracies

“That’s inaccurate.”

“This has been incorrectly reported for a long time now.”

“The facts are…”

Reporters are interviewing you often as a fact-gathering exercise and will often get things wrong. You assert your authority by correcting inaccuracies and going on to deliver your messages and stories.

The very act of answering a question however briefly, naturally appeases reporters and stops the same questions coming again and again. But to really use the interview to your advantage, make sure that you follow on with your story or your message that you want to get across. Without that part, you’ve only done half the job. The goal is always to stay in control of the story.

It’s easy to be a poor interviewee, but it takes a lot of practice to be Good Talent.

 

What is the toughest interview you’ve been through?

Tell us below in the comments section.

Want to get your staff media-ready?

We provide media training led by experienced journalist Tony Nicholls, who has covered international stories and worked for many of Australia’s major news networks. Find out more about the types of training we offer here: https://goodtalent.com.au/our-services/media-training/

Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.

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