Tough Media Questions I: Shock and Awe Answers

By George Merlis Monday, August 29, 2011

In 1949, U.S. Air Force Captain Edward A, Murphy, came up with his famous Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong will.”  With a nod in Captain Murphy’s direction, I have come up with my own law for media interviews:  “Anyone unprepared for tough questions will get them.”

Captain Murphy  came up with his law after observing a particularly inept technician.  I crafted mine as a cautionary note for media training workshops after watching countless spokespersons fall apart when they were asked unanticipated tough questions.  If an interview subject prepares for nightmare questions and gets none, there is no down side.  But if she does get them, she’ll be prepared to gracefully answer them.

In workshops I ask participants write a list of nightmare questions and then we collegially figure out how to respond to them.  In the next round of practice interviews, I ask the nightmare questions.  And when the interviews are over, we critique how well the participants deployed their responses.

What should that answer contain? I recommend the interview equivalent of General Colin Powell’s “Shock and Awe” tactics: overwhelm the negative in a question with multiple positives. How many positives?  According to Vincent Covello, a social scientist and risk consultant with whom I have worked, you need three positives to overwhelm a negative.

To illustrate how this works, let me cite a real world example.  I do a lot of media training for NASA and inevitably in those workshops a participant  comes up with some variation of this nightmare question:

“Why waste or spend money on space exploration when there are such pressing needs here on earth?”

Over the years workshop participants have supplied me with an embarrassment of riches for the answer.  Taking multiple effective responses and merging them, I came up with three cogent shock and awe points, and a subset of three specifics to illustrate the final point.

Here are the elements of that response:

1.  NASA’s budget is approved by the people’s representatives in Congress.

2.  NASA’s budget is less than one percent of the total federal budget.

3.  NASA’s budget is an investment that pays society a variety of beneficial dividends.

The subset are specifics that illustrate the third point:

1.  The space agency creates a lot of science and technology jobs; the kind of jobs America needs in order to stay competitive in an increasingly technology-driven world economy.

2.  NASA’s missions have broadened our knowledge of our planet, our solar system and our universe.  In fact they have rewritten astronomy and physics textbooks.

3.  Spinoffs of technologies developed for NASA have improved our daily lives by enabling powerful computer microprocessors, by giving us global positioning satellites, by supplying life-saving accurate weather predictions and by creating the means to build medical imaging devices that give early warning of cancers and other dread diseases.

This three-part answer, with its three-part subset is a powerful shock and awe response to the negative “waste” or “spend” money on space.  For media purposes we can’t get all of this to fit our ideal soundbite length of 30 words, spoken in ten seconds and comprised of three sentences.  But with some condensation, here is a soundbite version:

NASA’s Congressionally-approved budget, less than one percent of federal expenditures, is an investment in high-tech jobs, scientific knowledge and spin-offs that make life easier and safer.

Following up on the soundbite, the respondent can then cite any or all of the specifics.

Whether you’re dealing with outer space or outerwear, when you prepare for an interview, it’s critical to anticipate tough questions and to be ready to respond with shock-and-awe answers.


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