Questions are vital to an interview or a conversation. Without them the exchange would have no momentum, no life. They are the stimulus, the yeast which lifts the conversation and gives it body.
So anyone dealing with the media must be prepared for questions, lots of them.
The problem is that they come in every shape and size, friendly or hostile, general or probing, even, maybe, nothing more than a nudge to keep the conversation going. And in a live interview, any or all of the above can come into play.
On all but the rarest occasions, you – the interviewee – will know why you are being interviewed and therefore what shape the interview will take. The interviewer will be drawing on your knowledge, your experience as an expert to enlighten the audience, whether reader, listener or viewer. As a result, the questions will be based on territory that is familiar to you.
If you are interviewed on a regular basis, the principles of media training – the key messages, the ability to take control – will serve you well. Even without the invaluable practice that media training gives you, you can draw comfort and confidence from your own detailed knowledge of the subject under discussion. It is that knowledge that the interviewee wants to draw on, and if you can’t deliver it, you should not be sitting in the interviewee’s chair.
But – and this is a very big but – in every live interview, however well-prepared you feel, danger is lurking, with the possibility that the interview will suddenly change direction, leaving you struggling to retain control.
This can happen for a number of reasons. The most obvious, which occurs more often than you might expect, is that the interviewer has simply run out of questions. In which case, he or she has a desperate need for a topic or issue which will allow the interview to stay afloat until rescue comes in the form of the closing “thank you”. Questions dreamed up on the spur of the moment are unlikely to be comfortable for you. So it is important that, very quickly, you make that clear to the audience – “I’m really not the right person to answer that. However, what I would say is…”. The interviewer meanwhile is silently grateful that you have helped to fill a potential black hole.
Much more common and more dangerous, however, is the emergence of a fresh issue which is relevant to you…but which might be totally unexpected. Suppose you are the head of a large healthcare organisation invited into the studio to talk about how technology can speed up the interaction between doctor and patient. It’s a subject relevant to the audience and you are able to present a very positive story. All is well – until suddenly you hear – “While you are here, I wonder what your reaction is to the report out today which calls attention to the slow progress towards gender equality in large organisations? The reports says it could be 2025 before the majority of large organisations like yours achieve equality. Why is it taking so long?”
Like a drowning swimmer, images flash through your mind, many of them centred around your own career and its sudden fragility. You could of course admit that you haven’t yet read the report. That’s a brave reply because nobody likes admitting that they are behind the game. This gives the illusion that you have created a valuable breathing-space by handing back to the interviewer the responsibility for keeping the interview going. But the respite may be short-lived…
Interviewer: “Well, the report suggests that it’ll be years before most organisations reach their equality targets. How far are you from achieving equality?”
Interviewee: “Like most organisations of our size, it takes time, but it’s at the top of our priorities…”
“When do you expect to achieve equality?”
“Obviously I can’t give you an exact date but let me assure you, it is work in progress.”
“So at the present time how many of your workforce are women?”
“I can’t give you the exact figure but…”
“You say gender equality is a top priority but you don’t actually know how many women you employ?”
And so it goes on. As a form of combat it has all the cruelty of the Roman arena, with a similar spectator appeal. There is no obvious escape route, though clearly you would be better prepared if you checked that day’s headlines, looking out for any items of relevance to you or your work.
More immediately, you must shut down that particular avenue of questioning as quickly and as decisively as possible so that the interviewer is forced to change tack – “As I say, we are working hard to achieve equality but, as with all organisations of our size, it does take time.”
Skilled interviewers, sensing that you have no definitive answer, will often continue the pursuit by repeating the questions in a slightly different form.”So how important do you think gender equality is?”Again, it’s a ‘stop-beating-your-wife’ question and the use of the pronoun “you” is a further challenge, inviting you to offer a personal opinion. Don’t fall for it – simply repeat what we have heard before – “Of course it’s important but, as I’ve already said, it will take time”. At some point the dogs will be called off…
Cyber security is another topic which appears frequently on news agendas and each time it does, it offers interviewers a chance to challenge companies such as those in financial services or those with a large customer base. This can happen even when the original subject of the interview is something completely different.
“While you’re here, I’d like to get your reaction to the news this morning about yet another financial services company coming under cyber attack. How secure is your business from cyber attacks?”
Your key aim must be to offer reassurance to those, particularly your customers, whose personal data might be exposed to cyber attackers operating across the world,
“We are working all the time to ensure that our business and our clients are as well-protected as possible.”
“How frequently do you come under cyber attack?” This is tricky; the truth is that such attacks are almost non-stop, but that is not a comfortable message to offer.
Again, reassurance is essential. “Such attacks are frequent but we are well-equipped to deal with them.”
Then comes the question you really didn’t want – “So can you guarantee that all your data and all your clients’ details are totally safe?”
The answer you want to deliver is – “Of course. One hundred per cent.” But you can’t offer such a cast-iron reply. It is an impossible demand and you must say so. “No organisation like ours anywhere in the world could truthfully claim to be a hundred per cent secure, but we are committed to ensuring that all the data we hold is protected to the highest level…”
In any media exchange, particularly a live broadcast, the advantage lies with interviewers who are operating in their comfort zone. You are well outside that zone, but with practice and advice, you can learn to re-balance the exchange. After all – a final question – why should the integrity of your business be at the mercy of someone just armed with a few clever questions of their own?