Advanced Tip: Answering “All” Or “Never” Questions

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 3, 2013 – 1:04 PM

Very little in life can be predicted or guaranteed with certainty.

So when a reporter asks you if you can guarantee that something will happen “every time” or “never again,” you may have a tough time answering the question without offering some sort of caveat, such as “Well, there are no guarantees in life, but….”

The problem, of course, is that your hedged answer will be used against you.

Let’s say you’re a spokesperson for a local hospital. You’re asked, “Yes or no, do your patients ever complain about your hospital’s nursing shortage?” You answer by saying:

“Yes, our patients occasionally tell us that they wish we had more nurses on duty, but most of our patients are very happy.”

 But as a result of saying “yes,” the news story may read:

“Spokesman Bob Smith admitted that patients have been complaining about the hospital’s lack of nurses.”

 In my new book, I offer the following suggestion for answering that question:

“Despite the nursing shortage in the region, our patients are overwhelmingly happy with the service they receive from our nurses. In fact, one survey found that our nursing staff has a higher satisfaction rate than any other hospital in the region.”

But in this post, I want to go one step beyond that.

Some spokespersons—particularly deft ones who are able to deliver an “edgy” response without looking petty or defiant—can offer an even more direct response, such as:

“I’m not going to talk about ‘ever,’ or ‘any,’ or ‘none.’ I’m going to talk about what we’re hearing from most of our patients.”

Or:

“Patients tell us a lot of things, and our job is to listen to them carefully and constantly improve our services. But let me tell you what I hear from the vast majority of our patients.”

Or:

“That question strikes me as a bit sensational. I’d going to focus my reply on what we hear from the vast majority of our patients.”

Before offering one of these types of replies to a reporter, let me offer a few words from my own experience. Many spokespersons want to answer questions this way, but few can do so without sounding like a bit of a jerk.

So before you debut one of these types of responses, ask someone in your office to videotape a mock interview. Ask the truth-tellers in your life (not the office sycophants) to tell you how you’re coming across. If you still appear likeable despite your more aggressive answer, go for it.

And remember: A little goes a long way. You probably don’t want to end up looking like this guy.

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Comments (2)

  1. By Geoffrey Rowan:

    Great scenario to address, and there are lots of good answer variations. I think your first sample answer comes off as a bit evasive. I prefer coaching toward your more direct approach, which means walking a fine line between being adversarial and responsive. One option is to address the content of the question:
    “In fact, our nursing staff is at an excellent level to provide high-quality care and to meet our financial responsibilities. I’d love it if we could provide four nurses to every patient and I’m sure there are some patients who’d like that too, but that wouldn’t be responsible…
    Then go into supporting points:
    “Our patients are overwhelmingly happy with the service they receive from our nurses. In fact, one survey found that our nursing staff has a higher satisfaction rate than any other hospital in the region.”
    But the only way to know if your spokesperson can handle the situation with grace and credibility is to stress test him or her, on camera — as you have advised.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Geoffrey –

    Thank you very much for adding your own experience to the discussion.

    The line of yours I like the most is this: ” I’d love it if we could provide four nurses to every patient.” That line strikes me as human and honest, and also tacitly acknowledges that hospitals have limitations on what’s realistic and possible.

    Please don’t be a stranger – it’s good to have your voice on this blog.

    Best wishes,
    Brad

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