Being put on the spot can be excruciating in the extreme, especially if you know you can’t tell your boss/ colleague/ housemate what they want to hear. A default reaction to a prickly question can be to clam up in blind panic, or alternatively lose your rag, but neither is likely to garner a favourable outcome, for yourself or the person that’s asking. There’s another way, and it mainly involves adequate prep, shrewd anticipation and taking a leaf out of political and foreign correspondent Michael Dodd’s book. Having cross examined politicians for a living, he knows full well what constitutes a killer answer, and what most definitely doesn’t. From harnessing the energy of your nerves to posing pressing questions yourself, Michael’s expertise will steel you for the most heated of grillings. We put him in the hot seat to find out how to shine under pressure...
Get The Gloss: How can you prepare yourself mentally and practically for a potentially tough interview or discussion?
Michael Dodd: Realise the importance of preparation, and act accordingly! Preparation for what you say in a tough interview or discussion can be critical to your success.
Getting your preparation right can involve putting yourself in the minds of those who you will be engaging with and trying to see the world as they see it. Work out what you want them thinking, doing and feeling as a result of your answers.
Then prepare the messages you want to get across, such as “I would do really well in this position because…” or “my approach is just right for you in your circumstances because…”
Identify specific positive examples of what you have done that will enable your audience to picture in their minds why your messages are correct. Get a friend or colleague to ask you the expected questions in advance so you can practice your answers, while making sure you don’t sound over-rehearsed.
Visualise your successful outcome – then make it happen!
GTG: How do you stop nerves getting the better of you during an interview itself?
MD: Nerves can work for you. Just as an athlete or singer will want to be keyed up and focused on their big performance to bring out the best in themselves on the pitch or on the stage, so too can you.
Allow yourself time and space before the encounter to focus in advance on what you will say. This can be very calming.
Being physically warmed up also helps. So a bit of pre-meeting stretching in your office or a walk in the park beforehand can help you take a relaxed but focused approach.
A big slow breath before you answer each question can have a settling effect and make you feel confident. This will also stop you from having to gasp for breath nervously during your reply.
GTG: I fear I may forget the points I wish to raise - is it okay to bring notes or prompts into a meeting?
MD: Notes can be useful, providing you make sure they are slim and unobtrusive. The worst thing is to be seen as a prisoner of your notes, so that you look as though you can only speak if you refer to them.
Make them as succinct as you can. Single words or simple symbols can serve as an efficient reminder of what you want to say. This can ensure you are not overly reliant on notes for too much detail which can undermine your credibility.
GTG: What's the best way to approach a question that you don't know the answer to?
MD: Briefly say WHY you don’t know the answer. If you give a good reason it’s easy for your audience understand your situation. For example it could be “I can’t give you a specific answer because my team is making a study of this topic and we haven’t yet formulated the final conclusions.”
If you will be able to provide the answer at some future point, say so: “I will be able to share the results with anyone who would like them next week.”
Then make sure you say something immediately useful to the asker. Give the audience the best thing you can say on the topic. Even though you can’t tell them exactly what they are asking for, it’s important that demonstrate your willingness to help them as well as you can.
GTG: How can you deal with an angry boss without either getting angry yourself or dissolving into a heap?
MD: Having your great answers thought out in advance helps you to keep control of your emotions – which you should. If someone loses their temper and you keep yours, this can give you an advantage.
GTG: How should you deal with a question that feels a bit barbed, personal or badly thought out?
MD: Don’t allow yourself to take it personally. Never repeat a negative word thrown at you in a question like “Isn’t it true you’re completely hopeless?” You can do a ‘neutral paraphrase’ of the question and word it more helpfully to everyone in the conversation. For example, if you’re asked a question based on an inaccurate premise such as “Why do all your clients think you’re hopeless?” you could answer along the lines of: “It seems what you really want to know is what are my relations are like with typical clients and the answer is, with the occasional exception, excellent. For example…”
GTG: Things have gone WAY off piste...how can you steer the conversation towards a topic that makes yourself or your business shine in the best light?
MD: There is an extremely useful concept called ‘bridging’, which entails moving gracefully and helpfully from one topic to another. I discuss this in detail at length in my book, and it involves using a so-called ‘bridging phrase’ to help you to shift the focus to the area you want to. For example you can say “What’s really important for everyone to understand on this issue is…”. This can help to put you assertively in charge of the conversation. Make sure you focus on what you want to say in a way that it hits the ‘what’s in it for me' factor for your audience.
GTG: I've got to ask a tough question myself. Any tips on how to go about it?
MD: Keep it short, direct and to the point. Avoid a long pre-amble to the question. Make sure your question effectively ends with a question mark. This puts your conversation partner under more of an obligation to give you a direct answer.
GTG: I've got to deliver some bad news. How do you face up to the truth without the situation backfiring? Is bluffing ever an option?!
MD: There is a special formula and approach for imparting bad news.
The key is to talk to the heart before talking to the head. In other words you must acknowledge the emotion embedded in the topic for your listener before moving on to the logical side of the situation.
If you’re giving a client requested feedback and you know it’s not what they want to hear, saying it excessively bluntly and negatively without acknowledging the emotions involved is a mistake. Declaring “your work is atrocious” may be accurate but is not constructive.
You can be more humane and helpful by saying something which is accurate but more caring, like “I can understand if this comes to you as a shock and I know you’ve put in a lot of effort, but the project might have worked better had you…”
Bluffing is a bad approach. There’s no mutually beneficial point in having a professional conversation if you are not seeking to convey exact truths. How you express those truths is critical, which is why preparation of your content, structure and delivery style is so helpful. What is said is ultimately determined by HOW it’s said, so carefully worded truths are the friends of everyone in the conversation.
GTG: How can you instill confidence in your interviewer at the end of a round of questioning?
MD: Make sure typical answers end on a positive point and that you sound decisive in the way in which you finish your answer. This is especially vital at the end of your round of questioning. Last impressions tend to be lasting.
Finishing on a decisive positive point and allowing your voice to inflect downwards rather than upwards also helps to convey and instill confidence.
So “I’m looking forward to hearing from you” or “I’m looking forward to talking with you again” said in a decisive, friendly and upbeat way can help you leave a positive final impression.
GTG: Who do you think answers questions well in the public sphere, and are there any particular disasters lately that come to mind in terms of 'how not to do it'?
MD: One of the most high profile examples of ‘how not to do it’ applies to the one-time Chief Executive Officer of BP, Tony Hayward, who showed little understanding or concern for all those who were so badly affected by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Mr Hayward’s most infamous answer involved him saying “I want my life back” at a time when he should have been showing sympathy and focusing on helping those relatives of the eleven men killed and seventeen men injured during the disaster. He should also have shown more empathy with those who were trying to help the oil-soaked sea birds and those who had their livelihoods temporarily ruined by the fact that the outflow of millions of barrels of crude oil crippled the local fishing industry.
An example of excellent practice is the series of answers given by the head of Virgin, Sir Richard Branson, after a train crash in northern England where he expressed sympathy with those badly affected by the disaster, while diplomatically putting the accident into a wider context.
Sir Richard effectively showed how the situation could have been much worse had it not been for the Virgin driver, who he hailed as a hero, and the solidly-constructed modern design of the Virgin train which he described as “magnificent”.
Turning the ‘crisis’ of a negative question into a positive opportunity is what giving great answers is about. It’s worth studying interviews even just on TV to see what backfires, such as avoiding the question, and what works effectively, such as answering where you can and making an additional positive point to help your audience.
Michael Dodd helps people communicate in more inspiring, positive and confident ways – in one-to-one conversations, in media interviews and in conference and sales presentations. He is the author of Great Answers to Tough Questions at Work (published by Capstone, June 2016)
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