One of the more memorable interrogations from last week didn’t take place during a media interview.
It saw one of the world’s most powerful men deliver a jittery, nervous performance, which resulted in him produce quotes like “I think lying is bad”.
If you missed it, we are talking about Mark Zuckerberg’s latest Congressional testimony and in particular the uncomfortable exchange he had with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It turned out to be an encounter between an articulate and assured questioner and a flustered, nervous CEO, who produced the type of performance we coach delegates on our leadership communication training courses to avoid.
And there are lessons other leaders can learn from it.
As we’ve already suggested, one of the stand-out parts of the exchange with Ms Ocasio-Cortez was just how nervous the Facebook boss appeared.
For someone who has appeared at these types of hearings before it was a strangely jittery performance that saw him stumble over his words, lose track of questions and try to clarify answers to earlier questions.
Controlling those nerves is key to spokespeople coming across well, whether they are appearing at a hearing or a media interview.
On our leadership communication courses, we prepare leaders to appear at parliamentary hearings, public inquiries and before regulatory bodies and we tell them to remember that they are the expert and they will invariably know more than the person asking the questions.
Was Mr Zuckerberg well prepared for his time in the spotlight?
His responses to Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s initial questions would suggest that any preparation he had done had not gone far enough.
He “wasn’t sure” of the first time he became aware of Cambridge Analytica. He “didn’t know” when the social network’s COO Sheryl Sandberg first became aware of Cambridge Analytica. And he was unable to answer when the subject was first discussed with board member Peter Thiel.
“You don’t know,” was Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s somewhat surprised reaction. “This was the largest data scandal with respect to your company that had catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election. You don’t know?”
Not a good look.
Sure, the hearing was supposed to be about the launch of Facebook’s cryptocurrency project, Libra, but wider questions, particularly those relating to previous behaviour, are always likely to be asked in this environment. And as such, Mr Zuckerberg should have planned how he would respond.
A little bit of research would have also suggested that Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s line of questioning would be challenging. Earlier in the week, she had asked her Twitter followers for their thoughts on the questions she should ask.
Hypothetically, if you were, say, a member of Congress sitting on the Financial Services Committee given 5 minutes to question Mark Zuckerberg, what would you ask? 🤔— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) October 22, 2019
Clearly, there were several questions the Facebook boss didn’t know how to answer.
Saying “I don’t know” isn’t always a bad thing – if it is used sparingly - and can be a better approach than getting drawn into speculating or saying something that will come back to haunt you.
During our leadership communication training, we use a technique which is more classically known as a media training technique, and encourages delegates to tell us what they do know. Saying “I don’t know, but what I can tell you is…”, sounds helpful and cooperative and avoids surrendering control of the conversation with a short answer.
Answer the question
As the exchange went on to Facebook’s policy on exempting political advertising from fact-checking, it became increasingly difficult for Ms Ocasio-Cortez to get a straight forward answer.
Briefly showing her frustration at the responses, she said: “So, you won't take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that's just a pretty simple yes or no”.
She didn’t get a “yes” or a “no”.
At the end, Mr Zuckerberg went on to completely dodge a question about his “dinner parties with far-right figures.”
This approach to challenging questions makes leaders appear evasive – not a good look in a hearing or a media interview, particularly when it is used at the same time as lots of 'I don’t know the answer’ get outs.
What message did the Facebook boss hope to get across from his hearing?
That’s a hard question because the reality is that despite lasting five hours in total, the hearing was not particularly insightful.
But one thing Mr Zuckerberg did say has been turned into countless quotes and social media clips.
He said: “I think lying is bad, and I think running an ad that would be a lie would be bad”
Arguably, a quote you would more likely expect to come from a toddler than the boss of one of the world’s biggest companies. And a reminder that if you don’t say something interesting, something else may grab attention.
"Well Congresswoman, I think lying is bad and I think if you had to run an ad with a lie, that would be bad" I'm sorry but I actually cracked up at this part what a clown— • علیزا • (@aliza_sukhera) October 25, 2019
I cannot believe that in response to a simple yes-or-no question about whether Facebook will allow lies in political ads Zuckerberg said “lying is bad”.— Belinda Barnet (@manjusrii) October 24, 2019
The CEO of largest platform on earth, with 2.4 billion users, thinks “lying is bad” -but they won’t fact-check political ads.
“I think lying is bad” truly masterful wordplay from zuckerburg https://t.co/zVMd3uYoaV— la mujer (@Iamujer_) October 24, 2019
Wow she’s iconic but I can’t help but laugh at Zuck sounding like a kid trying to get out of trouble here.— 🌻louise🍂🎃 (@_Fallxn_) October 24, 2019
“I think lying is bad. And i think if you were to run an ad that had a lie in it, that would be bad” https://t.co/rx8tMRvhSN
Overall, this was not an impressive performance and it serves as a case study in ‘how not to do it’ for other people in the spotlight.
We can only imagine that Mr Zuckerberg was extremely grateful for the five-minute per questioner format which allowed him to avoid any further interrogation from Ocasio-Cortez.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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