Copping an Attitude | The HBS Blog |

By George Merlis Monday, September 26, 2011

One of my interview rules -- a rule so fundamental I call it a commandment -- is:  “Thou shalt not lie, evade, speculate nor cop an attitude.”  Let me address the last of these -- the one expressed in the least Biblical language: copping an attitude.

There is little the media like more than knocking someone off their high horse.  If you don’t get in the saddle in the first place, that temptation is eliminated. When might we climb on a high horse?  When we are asked the same question innumerable times, when the question comes from profound ignorance and  when the reporter asks a “gotcha” questions designed to catch you up.

Let’s deal with how to avoid copping an attitude in each of these circumstances.

That tired, old question.  A couple of years ago I got a phone call from a long time client who was having a problem with an entertainment personality.  It seemed that this young woman, tiring of a very routine question, was rolling her eyes, heaving sighs and sometimes just snapping angrily at the reporter asking the routine question.  She thought that since she’d answered the question for other reporters previously, there was no need to address it again.  When I spoke to her I recommended that she think of an interview as a performance.  “You sing the same song over and over, don’t you?  Well, perform the same answer.  Each reporter -- especially broadcast reporters -- want that soundbite delivered fresh for them.”

You want to make the routine answer to the routine questions sound and feel fresh, too. The late Peter Falk was a champion at this.  For 30 years he played the role of the disheveled detective, Lt. Columbo.  When asked what about Columbo appealed to the audience, Falk appeared to think hard, and then work out an answer that essentially said, “People see themselves in Columbo.”  But he ACTED out the answer, making it appear that it was forming in his mind at the moment he spoke it.  No doubt Falk’s answer was as convincing the last time he delivered it as it was the first time -- three decades earlier -- because he made it look and sound fresh each time.  He performed it.

Had Falk snapped, “Oh, come on.  You KNOW what makes Columbo appealing, he’s like all of us.”  THAT would have been the story -- his attitude would have overwhelmed his message.

The dumb question.  Increasingly, as newsrooms consolidate and as outlets try to save money by dropping experienced (read highly-paid) reporters for just-out-of-school rookies, you get questions soundly grounded in the journalist’s total ignorance.  You would expect that when a reporter is assigned a story, he would do at least cursory research on it before interviewing anyone.  But these days reporters are expected to be highly productive and quantity of stories is more valued in many outlets than the quality of the story so the reporter may not have had time to inform himself.  (And, sad to say, there are some reporters who, even with the time, won’t bother.)  The problem with answering in the condescending tone that such questions warrant is that the final story is in the reporter’s hands and if he feels he’s being patronized, he may try to get even.  It is said there is no such thing as a dumb question, only dumb answers.  I’m here to tell you that there are lots -- legions -- of dumb questions.  But giving a a condescending answer to one is even dumber than the question.  If a reporter’s question clearly indicates that he doesn’t understand the subject matter, patiently explain the facts and do it without showing your justifiable exasperation.

The gotcha question.  In this instance the reporter asks you a question you can’t answer because you don’t know the answer or any answer would be incriminating (“When did you stop beating your wife?”)  Typical of the former is the new stock-in-trade of political reporters: asking an official or a candidate the name of an obscure office-holder in a far-away land that the reporter has just gleaned from a last-minute Google search.  In either case -- “When did you stop beating your wife?”  and “What’s the name of the environmental  minister in Austria?” -- it’s important not to get angry or defensive. A good approach is to label the question.

“When did you stop beating your wife?”

“No matter how I answer that question, my response will sound incriminating.  In point of fact, my wife and I have a wonderful, mutually-supportive relationship.....”

“What’s the name of the environmental minister in Austria?”  “That’s a “gotcha” question.   I don’t know, but I’ll find out.  What I can tell you is.....”

The key to a successful outcome when confronted with one of these questions is to avoid copping a defensive attitude, to label the question for what it is and to use a bridge from the question to your own agenda.


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