Answer the question!
November 28, 2019

As the general election campaign gets under way politicians are increasingly being accused of not answering the questions put to them by interviewers.  During discussions with an audience there has been laughter and hoots of derision when a member of the political class, as they’re described these days, blatantly dodges a question.


People often ask during our media training courses “Do I always have to answer the journalist’s questions?  I don’t want to sound like a politician.”


In fact, politicians seem to be getting slightly better at answering the questions put to them, according to the expert in this area.


Peter Bull is Honorary Professor of Psychology at the University of York and has spent the last few decades examining politicians’ responses during media interviews.  He’s even identified some 35 techniques that people use to avoid answering a question.  These include attacking the question, re-phrasing it and even launching a personal attack on the interviewer.


Professor Bull has identified an average reply rate among British politicians of 46 per cent, up slightly from a 1991 study which showed that they answer the question just 39 per cent of the time.


Contrary to what many of us might feel, our politicians seem to be getting slightly better at replying.  But what about the rest of us?  Which questions will a journalist expect you to answer and which can you safely avoid?


It’s very simple.  If the question is directly within your purview then you’ll really have to answer it.  If not, the journalist will know that you’re hiding something.  In fact, we journalists quite like this. It’s good sport for us and it usually means that we’re onto a good story here.


For example, if your company’s profits are down by 30 per cent, then you’d better be ready to explain why this is.  On the other hand, if the journalist asks you about a competitor’s financial position there’s no reason to answer this question.  Similarly, I might ask whether you think the government is doing a good job of delivering Brexit.  Again, there’s no reason for you to get drawn into this, unless you want to, that is.


Journalists have no boundaries – we’ll ask anyone anything.  It’s part of the fun of our job.  Usually people don’t answer a question on a controversial subject that isn’t directly related to them but every now and then they do – and we’ve got a good story.


We provide a lot of media training courses for lawyers and they’re an interesting case in point.  Their training and their experience require them to answer questions completely and in detail.  As we point out, this might be appropriate when talking to a client, a regulator or a judge but it’s not the case when they’re being interviewed by a journalist.  In the media, we really only want the top line anyway.


Whatever business you’re in, if the question isn’t directly related to your work or what you’ve agreed to talk about then simply don’t answer it.   How can you avoid answering a journalist’s questions?  Well, you can start by simply telling them politely but firmly that you’re not going to talk about this issue.  It’s important, though, that you then explain why.


You don’t have to be pompous or defensive about it.  Just smile and tell them: “You wouldn’t expect me to talk about that really, would you?”  Or you might say: “I’ll let X speak for themselves.”  The chances are that even if the journalist protests, in reality they’ll understand.  They’ll also understand that you’re an experienced media interviewee and that you’re not going to be pushed around.


But don’t leave it there because otherwise the journalist might come back for a second bite.  Move the conversation on.  Tell them something that is new, surprising and relevant to the audience and, once you’ve got the conversational baton, keep running.  If what you’re telling the journalist really does tick these newsworthiness boxes and the question they’ve put to you isn’t directly relevant and an essential element of the story they’re asking you about, then they’ll be happy.


The other point that we make in our media coaching sessions is that when it comes to media interviews politicians are a special case.  We’re naturally suspicious of them even before they’ve opened their mouths.  They’re scrutinised by the media and their political opponents more than anyone else.  Very often because of the need to keep their various partners and voters happy they find themselves unable or simply refusing to answer the most obvious, yes-or-no questions that anyone outside the murky world of politics could easily handle.


Most of the time journalists don’t want to kebab their interviewees anyway.  They just want something newsworthy that will fill a few seconds or a few paragraphs of their report.  The closest most people ever come to this type of cross examination is during a crisis situation – and that’s another kettle of fish entirely.


As we say in our media training courses, the fact is that you can answer the journalist’s questions provided that they suit you.  If they don’t and you’re not going to answer them just be courteous but assertive and say so.


Don’t simply try to avoid the journalist’s questions, though.  This is the approach adopted by politicians – it’s unconvincing and frankly insulting to the audience on whose behalf the journalist is asking the question.  Just be honest (are you listening politicians?), polite but firm and the journalist will respect you.


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