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How to Answer the Really Tough Questions
When relentless reporters and opinion leaders really dig in.
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 by Ed Barks
Barks Communications

Ed BarksEvery single day your spokespeople answer questions from reporters, public officials, and other

Unfortunately, few give any forethought to
managing their responses.

On the positive side, this presents you with an opportunity to raise your profile by counseling them on effective Q&A strategies.

You Benefit by Managing Your Responses

It is important to recognize that listeners—be they a single reporter or an auditorium filled with hundreds of people— profit when you manage your responses. Why is that? Let’s examine what happens when you fail to stay on point.

Most of us have been subjected to exchanges when a renegade questioner forced an expert into a meaningless dialogue. Of course, you have also likely arranged interviews in which your spokesperson went off topic, resulting in a less than flattering story in the press.

Unfortunately, few give any forethought to managing their responses. On the positive side, this presents you with an opportunity to raise your profile by counseling them on effective Q&A strategies.

The bottom line is dealing skillfully with questions benefits you and your organization. It demonstrates that you have what it takes to handle the heat in the hottest kitchen. It raises your professional profile, polishes your reputation, and helps your organization attain the goals you are working to achieve. Note that this applies not only to your communications goals, it also demonstrates how effective communications and Q&A response help achieve your overall business goals.

Successful response management also helps you avoid that deer in the headlights look that is the hallmark of unskilled spokespeople hit with tough questions.

Anticipate Hard-hitting Questions

How can you and your executives best put into place an effective response management methodology? First and foremost comes preparation and practice. Of course, this is the case with any endeavor involving public speaking, media interviews, testimony on Capitol Hill or before a regulatory agency, and one-on-one dealings with policymakers.

Write down a list of questions that might arise, then sort them into what I call “issue baskets.” Allow me to explain this term. No matter how convoluted your issues, there are probably no more than four or five central themes you deal with in any Q&A situation (if you find yourself unable to narrow it down to that number, consult with a communications expert skilled in message development to help you refine your approach). Decide which portion of your message best addresses each issue basket.

Next, sort the questions into three types as follows:

  • Questions you expect to hear in nearly every encounter. You should have ready responses for these.
  • Positive questions that you want to hear. Suggest these questions to reporters, lawmakers, or an audience member in advance, whenever possible.
  • Questions you never want to hear. This is where your spokespeople must learn to utilize techniques like bridging and deflection.

Success through Q&A Management

Let’s face it. You rarely get the chance to deliver your message in unfiltered fashion. So rid yourself of the tired, ineffective way of Q&A response. Turn the conversation more in your direction. Take control. Managing your responses is vital to the good health of your career and your organization.

Ed Barks is President of Barks Communications, author of
The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations
and a member of the National Press Club’s Board of Governors.
To learn more, visit
Contact Ed at (540) 955-0600 or

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