When was the last time you had to respond to a specific criticism over an issue associated with your company or with a perceived product defect and you were at a loss for words realizing that your response needed to be carefully phrased? Difficult questions like these and many, many others often catch people at a loss because they are unrehearsed. The good news is there are ways to prepare for these unexpected questions, even tough ones, so you don’t embarrass your company or yourself in the public eye. Here are five ways I would recommend to anyone who deals with the media or buyers who need to prep for sensitive topics.
- Prepare some twists you can use in response to a negative question. In sports the best defense is offense. The quickest way to get on the offensive side is to research your company and pick out the 10 worst questions you might be asked if someone decided to play the protagonist. For example, let’s say your sales have been sliding for 18 months and market buyers are aware of this decline and you’re asked, “What’s going on with your declining sales?” Rather than trying to respond directly to the fact that was just laid out you could answer with “That’s right, our sales have been in decline in the specific market you cite along with our top 3 competitors, I might add. All of us have had our challenges in this down economy however we’re encouraged by our ‘Widget’ has been selling briskly in specific markets and is well ahead of our forecasts of last year.”
- Make equally aggressive responses to aggressive questions. At a recent sales meeting several key salesmen were strongly questioning the wisdom of a specific set of directives they had received from their director. Rather than trying to softly respond to their objections the director bluntly asked, “Do you want the benefit of my inside industry and customer knowledge or go it alone and live and die by your solo efforts?” Since the director was an acknowledged market leader the sales people quickly recanted their objections and became far easier in their communications. This was made possible because the director knew what would and wouldn’t work in the market and was prepared to stand up for her beliefs.
- Be an interesting storyteller. People love stories and interesting examples because they can see themselves in them and quickly gain a sense of direction from them. When presenting to a board of directors recently I gave an example of when I first started in the business in my first line job. This brought the board of directors back to their first job, something that we could all talk about and be interested in. When the discussion turned back to what it was I was proposing it was a much easier communication because empathy for the continuous improvement program I was proposing had been established.
- Be the expert in the room. But don’t be a ‘know-it-all.” This is a common mistake made by professionals. They seem to have an in-bred need to always remind everyone in the room of how much they know. Frankly, this is a total bore. I recently interviewed a director who was on the one hand a total expert in his area filled with information but on the other hand, I couldn’t wait for the interview to conclude because there was so much self-aggrandizement in the room we needed to open a window to let some fresh air in! Know the facts, be prepared to share them, but always do so in the context of the question you’ve been asked. Short and quick answers are always preferred to long-winded complicated explanations.
- Be yourself. One of the worst mistakes someone can make in media and sales is to pretend to be someone they’re not. Rarely does this have a happy ending because the truth is easier to keep straight than untruth. Look for ways to demonstrate your competence and explain things in a simple and straightforward way. Report negative facts just as easily as positive ones to set yourself up as a trustful resource and lay out what you are going to do next to right the situation. Honesty is always the best policy.
Human nature leads you to hold your breadth and hope that no one notices, but this hardly ever works. The world is too small now to hide from specific or critical events. It’s always better to stay in front of an issue and be prepared to set the directional course for that issue. Really strong executives bring out the worst news in their interviews quickly offer the remedy that will solve to the problem they just cited. That’s leadership in action.