During our media training workshops, we often ask our trainees tough questions about thorny topics.
At least once per month, a trainee asks for a “time out” during their practice interview, breaking character because I’ve asked a challenging question that they don’t know how to answer.
When I turn the camera off, they admit that I “got them.” They tell me that the question was almost impossible for them to answer, often because they realized that my question was a valid one about a vulnerable point that could make them look bad.
They’re right that some questions don’t have a great answer. But a lot of the time, the answer was sitting in front of the trainee the entire time.
In order to help the trainee get “unstuck,” I’ll often ask a simple question:
“Since we have a confidentiality agreement between us, can you tell me off camera what the real answer is so I can help you form a better reply?”
About half the time, the answer they give me off camera is—or almost is—perfect. But for some reason, they didn’t think to offer that answer when the camera was on. That leads me to ask an even simpler follow-up question:
“Why don’t you just say that?”
Most of the time, I suspect they hadn’t thought of that themselves because people under fire often become defensive. But you don’t have to wear an impenetrable shield when being interviewed. The public doesn’t usually expect perfection from you. It does expect honesty, integrity, and forthrightness—so even if your answer may disappoint some people in your audience, they very well might forgive you if you deliver it in a manner that conveys a message of competence and concern.
So the next time you find yourself spending hours trying to develop and wordsmith the perfect message about a tough topic, take a time out. Ask yourself what the “real” answer is. Much of the time, your work will end right there.
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