As we approach the last few weeks of the Presidential campaign, you've probably already come across the term "debate camp" many times. It refers to the practice of candidates sequestering themselves with a small staff of trusted advisers and media training coaches to prepare for the most important question-and-answer event of their lives: the Presidential debates. The skills that Barack Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Joe Biden practice in those sessions can be applied to many important events in your own life as a business professional: conducting media interviews, winning over reluctant customers, or pitching skeptical investors. As someone who has worked in closed-door sessions to prepare Fortune 500 CEOs to face difficult—and often uncomfortable—questions, I've tried to distill the lessons into a three-step process.
Step 1. Craft Your Story. Start with a white board or blank sheet of paper and ask yourself, "What do I want to communicate?" Come up with three main points that you can easily articulate in a few sentences. Add an example, statistic, and story to support each of your three key messages.
Step 2. Listen for Intent. Listen to the intent of the question without getting hung up on the exact phrasing. Henry Kissinger once told a story about Charles de Gaulle. He said de Gaulle would enter press conferences with four prepared answers and would fit his answers into the questions. This isn't as manipulative as it would appear. Nobody can prepare for 100 different questions. But you can prepare for several general categories of question.
For example, let's say your customer asks, "Why do you charge so much more than your competitors?" This is a loaded question that can cause you to veer in any number of directions, especially if your inclination is to trash your competitor. A trained spokesperson will listen for intent. In this case, your customer wants to know how you arrived at your price. Pricing should have been a category your prepared for. Your response might go something like this: "We arrived at the price, because of x, y, and z." It's a simple declarative sentence that satisfies your customers' intent.
Step 3. Make smooth transitions to one key message. This is a simple sentence that acts as a segue to one of the key messages you created earlier. Politicians are pros at this. In the first Presidential debate, Jim Lehrer asked Barack Obama what priorities he would have to give up as a result of a financial bailout. Obama responded: "Well, there are a range of things that are probably going to have to be delayed." In other words, he didn't have a clear answer at the moment. But with one sentence, he successfully bridged to one of his key messages—his priorities: "But there are some things that I think have to be done." (This was his bridge). "We have to have energy independence…. We have to fix our health care system…. What we have to do is, we've got to make sure that we're competing in education…. And I also think that we're going to have to rebuild our infrastructure."
Obama took a potential negative and "bridged" to his key message. If he had simply answered the question—and left it at that—the bulk of his message would have been left out of the conversation.
Lutz Misses a Bridge
GM (GM) Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz recently appeared on to promote the new Chevy Volt, an extended range electric car (BusinessWeek.com, 9/16/08)>. Colbert, in full character as a bombastic talk show host, asked Lutz, "Isn't this tantamount to admitting that we have to do something about global warming?" This put Lutz in a difficult position, because he is on record as saying global warming is not man-made. Instead of providing an answer that forcefully defended his position, Lutz grimaced and was visibly stumped. Finally, Lutz said, "I accept that the planet is heated, but like many noted scientists, I don't believe in the CO2 theory…. I have to get off this subject." Lutz hadn't prepared for an obvious and difficult question. If he had crafted his story, listened for intent, and "bridged" to a key message, his response may have sounded something like this. Bear in mind, I'm making it up:
"Thousands of scientists believe that the earth is warming for reasons other than carbon dioxide emissions. I happen to share that opinion, and I know many of your viewers do not. But here's something we can all agree on. [This is the bridge.] We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, whether for environmental or geopolitical reasons. At GM, we listen to our customers, and that's why we committed more than x engineers and y designers to this project. That's how important it is." By following the three-step method, Lutz could have agreed to disagree with viewers who don't share his views—while still maintaining confidence in GM's ability to innovate.
Skilled speakers don't shy away from tough questions, even if they would rather avoid them. But answering hard questions skillfully is an art.