Experts tell Moneyish how to pivot and swat away uncomfortable or inopportune questions
Next question, please.
Public figures are fluent in the art of deflection, pivoting and swatting away questions they deem uncomfortable or inopportune. Ivanka Trump scolded a reporter this week for asking whether she believed the President’s sexual misconduct accusers, calling it an “inappropriate question to ask a daughter” and maintaining she believed her father. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), challenged by a Parkland shooting survivor to disavow future NRA donations, insisted, “the influence of these groups comes not from money.” And Meryl Streep, asked about people waiting for her to sound off on former colleague Harvey Weinstein, replied, “I don’t want to hear about the silence of me. I want to hear about the silence of Melania Trump.”
But not everyone gets the media coaching afforded to politicians and celebs. Here are expert tips on how to deflect with the best of them:
Don’t get defensive. “You have to neutralize your emotions — otherwise you don’t look believable,” career coach and writer Kathy Caprino told Moneyish. Steer clear of emotional phrases like “I’m offended” or “I’m insulted.” Instead, she said, be “firm and powerful and clear.”
Answer a question different from the one asked, Harvard Kennedy School behavioral scientist Todd Rogers offered. The listener may not actually recall the original question, the professor told Moneyish, as long as you dodge “artfully” — i.e., by answering a similar question. Similarity between questions is key, Rogers found in a 2011 paper: A speaker replying to a question about illegal drug use with a response about health care could dodge successfully, while his reply to a question about the War on Terror with a health care response fared worse.
“Don’t answer the question you were asked,” Rogers quotes former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “Answer the question you wish you were asked.”
Bridging “creates a transition from one subject to your message” and helps steer the conversation from negative to positive, crisis communications consultant Todd Ragusa told Moneyish. Try using phrases like “It’s important to remember that …,” “I appreciate the question, but the real issue is …” or “Let me put all this in perspective by saying …” to transition, he said.
Never fabricate an untrue answer. “That never ends well,” Ragusa said. But it’s “100% fair” to admit you don’t have specific expertise on a topic, he added, as long as you communicate that you’ll provide that information later. “Don’t ever give misinformation,” Caprino said. “I think it’s perfectly fine to say, ‘I really don’t have the data on that, but I would love to get back to you’ … When you say you’re going to look into it and get back, then you better do it.”
Maintain “open” body language, Caprino said, facing forward without crossing your arms. “Anything that signifies that you’re closing yourself off or protecting yourself” can suggest you’re lying, she said. Don’t fidget, pace or fall back on uhs and ums, Ragusa said.
Prepare. Have simple one- or two-word talking points you plan to communicate at every available opportunity, Ragusa said. “Anticipate as many tough questions as you can and then think through how you would answer them,” he said. “Having that in your back pocket … will give you the confidence when those questions do arise.” Have supporters, advisors or close friends from diverse backgrounds prep you with hard questions you might not expect, Caprino added, and avoid pausing or hesitating.
Use a value statement up front, Caprino said. “A value statement might be, ‘I really value transparency and honesty, and that’s why I’m going to tell you the truth here,’” she said, “or ‘I believe in the right of women to speak up against their accusers … Given that, I know my dad and I believe in my dad.’” This tactic can provide context for what you’re about to say and help the listener understand you better.
Validate the questioner and make it clear you understood their question. “You have to have compassion for their position,” Caprino said. “It’s really important that you come from a place of understanding why they might be asking that question … It’s ‘I hear what you’re saying’ and ‘I understand where you’re coming from.’” This can help foster trust between you and the questioner, she said.
Steer clear of “no comment” unless an actual policy or law prevents you from commenting. “That can make you look like you’re trying to hide something even when in fact you may not be,” Ragusa said. “‘No comment’ means ‘I have no way of effectively addressing your question,’” Caprino added. “And that just leads to more questions.”
If you’re called out for deflecting — as the Florida senator later was — then “don’t run from it,” Caprino said. “If Rubio said, ‘I can’t give you what you’re asking me right now, but I can give you this …’ I think that would be applauded,” she said. “I think more truth is what’s required. And then live with the consequences of that.”
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