I think I can speak for all news junkies, social activists, and people who wear hoodies when I say that the Trayvon Martin case has been riveting and disturbing all at the same time.  As a communication coach, I am continually impressed by how well Trayvon’s parents have handled themselves when a microphone is pointed at them. For two people who never asked to be in the spotlight, and who must mourn in public, they have handled themselves with dignity and poise.

The same cannot be said for others involved in the case.  Even the experts, including those who actually work in the criminal justice field have stumbled, side-stepped and, well, stepped in it (thank you Geraldo). The other day, as I was in my car listening to reports of Zimmerman’s arrest, I became frustrated with the talking heads, and actually yelled at the radio, “Answer the question!”

For those of us who don’t have Frank Luntz on speed dial to help us navigate a tough Q&A session, I share the following tips on how to answer questions with confidence, clarity, and conviction:

  1. Consider what type of question is coming at you. Is it a request for information, a need for clarification, or is the questioner being adversarial?  Once you have a sense of the context, you will have a much better chance of staying in control.
  2. Answer the question that was asked.  Too often, in our undying need to be helpful and forthcoming, we answer three questions for each one asked. This is a recipe for disaster. Remember the phrase “asked and answered…next question.”
  3. Be mindful of your “real” audience.  If you are answering questions from the media, remember that journalists are not your primary audience – the reader is (or the radio listener, or TV viewer). What do you want to show up in print the next day?  That’s how you answer the question.
  4. Don’t stumble on the softball questions.  One of the things that made me so frustrated the other day was that a practicing criminal defense attorney – who was asked to come on the air to help educate the average citizen about what had transpired in the Zimmerman arrest – could not explain the difference between second degree murder and manslaughter. This should’ve been a slam dunk. But instead, the expert tripped over his words, misspoke, ummed and aahed, and was altogether flat-footed. The easy questions should sail right past the Pesky Pole (sorry, had to get a Fenway Park reference in there, what with the 100th anniversary and all).
  5. If you don’t know the answer, do what the pros do.  Practice the fine art of bridging and redirecting. It goes something like this: “I am not able to answer your question at this time, but what I can tell you is [insert key message point here].  Or:  “If you are asking me if…then I can tell you that [insert key message point here].
  6. Remember that you are in control, not the questioner.  Stay calm, practice your zen breathing, and keep every answer as brief as possible. The timing we should all shoot for is under 30 seconds.

If you have strategies that work for you, please let us know.

– Barbara