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Talk Show Traps: How to Handle the Tough Questions

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In today’s media-soaked culture, a series of interviews is a good way to get “buzz” going. But the promise of reward comes with risk, and a lack of preparation for hard questions can spell disaster, defeat, and dejection.

When I was a reporter and news anchor, it was my job to ask those hard questions. They always got the best responses–at least from the media pros, who are trained to stay on message and can usually “spin” faster than a politician can spell “Meet the Press.”

You can learn these verbal acrobatics too by practicing a clever way to handle off-topic, off-the-wall, or even off-color questions. It’s called “verbal bridging” and it will keep you safe when the interviewer starts throwing curves and fastballs.

Even before an interview begins there’s an important step to take. Anticipate those dreaded questions. Ask yourself: What questions do I definitely not want to answer? What topic do I hope is never mentioned? What makes me sweat just thinking about it? Don’t worry about answers. Just make a list of your high-anxiety issues. Later, after you’ve confronted these knuckleball questions, whatever an interviewer throws at you will seem like marshmallows.

 

The ABCs of Verbal Bridging

The verbal bridge has three parts–a beginning, middle, and end which I call Answer, Build, and Control. Let’s say you’re being interviewed about intergalactic travel. Suddenly the interviewer asks a truly weird question out of left field like “Do you think Ockham’s razor ever got dull?” Huh? It’s impossible to answer. Who knows what it means? Slow down, don’t get vexed or perplexed. Just build a verbal bridge.

First, respond to the question in some way–briefly and truthfully. “Ockham’s razor… of course, now that’s a very challenging question.” What could be briefer or more truthful? Saying something that acknowledges the question protects you from being seen as evasive.

Second, build a verbal bridge to something you do want to talk about with a phrase such as “You know the important thing to remember here is…” The bridge should be a short statement that allows you to slide elegantly back into your comfort zone, the subject you’re there to discuss. The bridge phrase should have “marquee value” in pointing to the importance of the next step.

Finally, come back to your core message, the important thing you want to say. Perhaps you respond, “The important thing to remember is… in a few years, we’ll be colonizing other galaxies. That’s what’s so exciting about intergalactic travel and why I’m so happy to have time to talk with you on WHOW today.” If you can keep talking coherently for about 20 seconds, the bizarre question about Ockham’s razor will completely fade from memory.

 

Phrases for the Practice Sessions

Now practice these A-B-C steps with your dreaded questions of doom. First, pause thoughtfully and offer a brief and truthful one-sentence response. Second, pick a phrase to build a bridge. Third, take control and refocus on your real message.

Here are some of my favorite verbal bridges. Make up your own and be sure to practice them out loud, maybe with a friend tossing the questions at you.

 

  • “The important point here is…”
  • “What’s critical in this issue is…”
  • “After careful consideration, we found…”
  • “What I want you to know is…”
  • “Please remember this…”

 

My all-time favorite verbal bridge is good for answering the really tough questions: “I just don’t know the answer to that.” Then add, “But what I do know is this…” Finish with your message and stay in control of the interview.

 

Bob Karstens is a media coach, professional speaker, and communication architect based in Austin, Texas. Formerly a television news anchor, reporter, and radio host, he helps people in organizations put the power of trust to work through WisdomTools Inc. For more info, e-mail him at

bob@wisdomway.com or call 512/347-7555.

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