There is a world of difference between a trick question – and a tricky one. Any interviewee in these media-savvy days who is asked to name the day on which his wife-beating sessions stopped should be able to spot the danger easily enough.
Much more difficult is the line of questioning which leads to a “trick” question.
“So you say the local council is wrong?”
“But they say the facts support their view. So who is telling the truth? You or them?”
“Well, I believe my views are correct.”
“So the council are wrong. They are lying?”
“I didn’t say…”
“But you say you are telling the truth. So they must be lying?”
Under pressure, at speed, it is not easy to manage such an exchange with equilibrium and authority. What you must do is return to the issues which gave rise to the interview in the first place – “I can’t speak for the council, I don’t know how they reached their conclusions. All I know is that…”
Another favourite among inquisitors in the “can you guarantee?” question. As in – “Can you guarantee that the same sort of accident will not happen again in your factory?”
Of course you can’t, and any reasonable person will recognise that. But to say that you cannot guarantee that a similar event will never occur again sounds weak, an admission of failure or lack of due care.
Your reply must be brave and confident, ranging from the general – “Nothing in life can be guaranteed, as you well know” – to the more specific – “We could never absolutely guarantee that, and nor could anybody in our line of business, but in the light of what has happened we believe we have put every possible safeguard in place…”
It is at this point that all media-handling advice, including how to counter trick questions, returns to the same fundamental rule – prepare very thoroughly. That preparation must include the relevant, positive points you want to make. These points should address both the issues you believe are important, and those likely to be raised by the interviewer.
Another much-neglected piece of advice is, take control of the early exchanges, in particular your first reply. If in that opening answer you can set out your case and give your version of events, you will stand a good chance of pre-empting some of the tricky questions. This also allows you to repeat key messages – “As I said a little earlier…”
Most interviewers would quibble at the idea that they use trick questions. They are after all “just seeking the truth” and are rewarded handsomely for doing it in a convincing and persuasive manner. If you, however, manage to express your viewpoint with authority and clarity, the public will be in a position to make up their own minds. In the end, that is what matters.