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‘That was a bit of a curveball’ is a phrase we sometimes hear when we put delegates through an interview on one of our media training courses.
It’s not our intention to trip them up, but it is important that we keep them on their toes and show them what could happen outside of the training environment.
Journalists in the real world will ask curveball questions, gotcha questions and unexpectedly difficult questions, whether they are carrying out a national television, local radio or print interview.
Here is our quick and dirty guide to successfully managing these questions which have the potential to completely derail an interview.
Expect the unexpected
One of the best ways to deal with curveball questions is to prepare for them.
It’s not enough for spokespeople to prepare for potential negative questions about the subject they want to discuss. They also need to consider the wider issues that could be brought into the interview. In other words what else is ‘moving’ in the media that they could be asked about.
This could be something else the organisation has recently been in the news for, some comments made a by a senior leader or maybe some recent financial results.
It could also be about a competitor or some issues affecting the sector.
It is also worth remembering that Government policies and issues could be drawn into an interview. For example, spokespeople often face questions about the impact of Brexit on their organisation or sector.
Buy yourself a little thinking time
If a spokesperson has been caught off-guard by a curveball question, they should look to buy themselves a little thinking time before launching into an answer.
This could be through a brief moment of silence or a phrase like ‘that’s a good question’ (although this should be used sparingly).
This is a good way for a spokesperson to quickly gather their thoughts and plan in their head how they are going to respond.
The pause is the one spokespeople are typically more reluctant to use, which is a shame as it can be very effective. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was renowned for his effective use of pauses before answering questions.
You may not want to answer a curveball question, but you cannot afford to dodge it.
If a spokesperson tries to evade a question, by delivering a response which does not relate in any way to what they have been asked, they can appear shifty and untrustworthy.
It may also encourage the journalist to pursue that particular line of questioning, cranking up the pressure.
Politicians have a reputation for trying to evade questions and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson recently suffered the embarrassment of having an interview ‘terminated’ after repeatedly trying to avoid an awkward question.
But it is not just politicians who do this. One of the most infamous examples featured the then boss of BlackBerry on BBC Breakfast.
It is worth remembering that even with curveball questions, the journalist is simply asking questions they believe their audience wants answered.
Bridging is the crucial media training tool for dealing with curveball questions.
It enables the spokesperson to briefly answer, or at least acknowledge the question and then steer the conversation on to safer ground.
So a spokesperson could say something like ‘that’s how / not how I see it – going back to…’ or ‘that’s something I will look into, but what we are concerned with now is…’.
When it is used well, it sounds very natural and it can be difficult for most people to detect.
But, when it is used without the necessary subtlety, it can appear that the spokesperson is trying to dodge the question.
Australian politician Bob Katter produced one of the worst examples of bridging we have ever seen when he tried to move an interview away from the subject of gay marriage.
Don’t get drawn into speculation
A lot of curveball questions are speculative.
Journalists are obsessed about the future and if anything their tendency to speculate seems to have increased in recent times.
‘What would happen if’ is a question a spokesperson should expect to face.
And this puts them on very shaky ground.
The key is to not get dawn in and make any bold predictions about what may or may not happen in the future and which could leave you and your organisation a hostage to fortune.
Don’t repeat the negative
Many curveball questions are laced with negative words and phrases.
And the temptation can be for the spokesperson to repeat that language as they attempt to rebut or deny what had been implied.
For example, asked something like ‘while you are here, your latest financial results were a disaster weren’t they?’ And the spokesperson might start their response by saying ‘I wouldn’t say they were a disaster’.
Result? The journalist now has a sound-bit of them using the negative phrase.
A great example of this came during the VW emissions crisis. Its CEO Matthias Muller faced a question which asked whether his company was a ‘criminal brand’. He responded by saying ‘we are not a criminal brand or group’. The result? Headlines such as these:
Volkswagen CEO: ‘We are not a criminal brand’ – USA Today
‘We are not a criminal brand’: Volkswagen CEO defends under fire company in Detroit over emissions scandal – Daily Mail
It’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’
No-one really wants to say ‘I don’t know’ in response to a journalist’s question.
But, there is nothing wrong with it, and it's a far better approach than guessing, speculating or trying to avoid the question.
If you are going to use this approach, try to steer the conversation back to what you do know through the bridging technique. So you could say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that specific question, but what I can tell you is…’
Don’t be tempted to add the words ‘I’m no expert’ when admitting you don’t know an answer – it can damage your credibility.
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.
Click here to find out more about our journalist-led media training courses.
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