Improvising Answers in Business

December 19, 2007

Many business people ask how they can better improvise their responses to difficult questions in meetings. I had a similar question about difficult suggestions from the audience, after watching Tom McGee compete with his Improv troupe in the Canadian Improv Games.

In Improv, a group of people are put on the spot when they take seemingly random suggestions from an audience. Without any more than a minute or two of huddling together to confer, they are able to turn those suggestions into a coherent, funny sketch on stage.

So, I asked Tom how they do it. His answer?

“Structure. It’s all about structure.”

What? Improv is not spontaneous and unrehearsed? “No,” he said. “We use set structures of story, character, status and so on as our prepared structures and incorporate what the audience offers into those structures.”  The process still demands creativity, but that creativity is supported by prepared structures.

Structure gives the improvisers control of the situation. With it, the audience’s suggestions become part of a controlled performance. Without it, those same suggestions become large threats.

This is also the key for business people. They need to remember that they use structures to communicate every day. When the stress is less, it is easier to reach for those structures.  They come into use in responding to questions; they provide control and bring comfort.

Business people, in situations that are stressful, are often frozen by difficult questions. It’s the “deer in the headlights” effect. We should expect improvisers to suffer the same fate on stage. But the good ones don’t, because they reach for their known structures and use them to control whatever challenge the audience has given them.

Keith Johnstone says in his book, IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre: “…it (narrative skill) also means that you look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards.”

When we teach media interactions, we talk about the “bridge” structure. Simply it means we either address or don’t address the specific question, and then use a word bridge, such as “the point that needs to be made is….” To take us back to the point we want to make. Certainly this structure could be and is used in other interactions, such as with customers.

Another structure used in media interactions is the “premise challenge”. Here, we challenge the premise of the question rather than answer it. We might say, “You’ve based your question on some inaccurate data. I think we need to correct that….” Now that we’ve taken control, we can move the discussion to where it is more comfortable for us. Again, a technique most people use without thinking. It is important to understand the structures we use in communicating, so that they can be consciously applied in any situation.

The empathy approach – words and actions – in situations of high concern and low trust is another control structure. In fact, it is an extremely powerful control structure when someone is expressing anger to us. I have broadened my own take on this. I call it ACUESAA: Acknowledge, Concern, Understanding, Empathy, Sympathy, Agreement, Action. Any of these responses, alone or in combination, create a structure to reduce concern and build trust. This approach is effective with any audience.

Here are some other structures that can be used by business people:

  • Rule of three. When a difficult question is asked, people can freeze and not know why. Then they begin to focus on their freeze-up and their anxiety just feeds on itself. If they take a lesson from Improv and Keith Johnstone, then they need to look back and not forward. Of all the things they could say, what three things would they choose? Selecting that structure often brings content to mind almost automatically. Therefore, control is established and the ice is broken. Sometimes it is tough to come up with three, but, as in Improv, the skill of using this structure can be learned and practiced.
  • Chronology. This structure is time based. To respond to the question, the content is organized and delivered in chronological order. “It’s important to start at the beginning…And finally we arrive at today….”
  • Too Hot. Too Cold. Just Right. Most of us know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In it, everything was analyzed in that manner. So, using this structure, we can find the options that are unacceptable and the one that is.

As with Improv, the answer for business people to handle difficult questions is to find a control structure that gives them confidence and comfort in stressful interactions.

Copyright 2005/2007

What Do You Say If They Ask If You're Gay? Managing the Media's "Gotcha" Questions

January 29, 2008

Bill Clinton’s recent hard-edged intervention in the Democratic leadership race reminded me of his aggressive response about his anti-terror record in a media interview with Chris Wallace. I included it as an example of one way to challenge the premise of the reporter’s gotcha questions in a column I wrote for PR Canada in September 2006. It starts with the Diane Sawyer interview with American Idol’s Clay Aiken asking about his sexuality. Here it is again for those who are interested in managing difficult questions in media interviews:

It used to be that the “gotcha” question was “When did you stop beating your wife?” Now that the “Did you ever take drugs?” question has worn out, the “gotcha” question is: “Are you Gay?” So, what do you do if the media ask a “gotcha” question?

Let’s look at the options:

  • Negotiate a clear focus for the interaction ahead of the interview.
  • Warn the interviewer off certain subjects.
  • Answer the question directly, perhaps yes or no.
  • Provide a variation that confirms or denies, perhaps with lots of ambiguity so that the receiver won’t be sure of the answer: “I won’t tell you what I am but I don’t have any problem that people have different sexual preferences.”
  • Challenge the ‘Premise’ on the basis of the appropriateness of the question, the facts/interpretation of the facts/conclusion drawn off the facts. Saying in some way that the question is inappropriate is a premise challenge tactic. (Below you will see this done by former President Bill Clinton.) Refocusing on/bridging to the main/agreed focus of the interview is a premise challenge of the appropriateness of the question.
  • Exit. If the techniques of not answering the question directly do not convince the reporter to move on and have been well delivered, then get out.

In any given situation, you might well see a combination of options employed. There is no right or wrong response, just options, each with its own upside and downside. For instance, warning the interviewer off a certain subject – such as the gay question – might have an upside of eliminating that question, but it might have the downside of signalling a sensitivity that the reporter has a difficult time ignoring. The reporter may be prepared to break an agreement in order to increase the conflict/news value of the interview. Let’s look at some real world applications.

The New York Post carried a headline: “Clay Aiken Calls Diane Sawyer’s Gay Question ‘Rude’.” It refers to an interview on “Good Morning America” between the veteran broadcast journalist and the 2003 runner-up who became an instant star after his performances on “American Idol.”

The Post reported the exchange this way:

Sawyer went right after Aiken, asking at the top of the interview if he was “ready to come out and say you’re gay.”

“That would not make sense for me to do that,” Aiken said.

“You think I’m rude for asking?” Sawyer asked Aiken.

“I’ve gotten to a point where I feel it’s invasive. Forget it. What I do in my private life is nobody’s business anymore, period. I don’t think you’re rude because I figure people have a job to do.” Aiken said.
“I just don’t understand why people care, to be honest with you. I’m not spending my time with this anymore. This is a waste of my time.”

So, Aiken didn’t answer the question, he challenged the premise. He also signalled that he was done. He waved his arms and his body language signalled he’s going to leave, but he didn’t. Finally he said: “So, I’m done.” And then Sawyer changed the discussion to the issue of intrusive questions into private lives and admitted, “You got me”. She doesn’t like it either.

Some have criticized Sawyer for lack of journalistic vigour for not pressing Aiken, presumably until he broke and supported her initial conclusion. I’m not interested in the content, only in the technique. In this exchange, Aiken premise challenged his way through the interview. He could have also used the premise challenge that we’ll see in the next example: Do you ask this question of everyone you interview? (This shifts control to the interviewee.)

Another example. Chris Wallace interviewed Former President of the United States Bill Clinton on Fox News Sunday with an agreed focus of the Clinton Global Initiative. Wallace didn’t  start with the question: “Tell me about the Clinton Global Initiative.” Instead, Wallace put Clinton on the defensive straight off:

Wallace: In a recent issue of The New Yorker you say, quote, I’m 60 years old and I damn near died, and I’m worried about how many lives I can save before I do die. Is that what drives you in your effort to help in these developing countries?

Clinton: Yes, I really – but I don’t mean – that sounds sort of morbid when you say it like that. I mean, I actually…

Wallace: That’s how you said it.

Clinton: Yes, but the way I said it, the tone in which I said it was actually whimsical and humorous. That is, this is what I love to do. It is what I think I should do.

A few questions later Wallace really lights up Clinton.

Wallace: When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday, I got a lot of e-mail from viewers. And I’ve got to say, I was surprised. Most of them wanted me to ask you this question: Why didn’t you do more to put bin Laden and Al-Qaeda out of business when you were president?

The two of them engage in a choppy exchange with Clinton trying to get control and Wallace raising more questions that attack Clinton’s record. Finally Clinton gets aggressive.

Clinton: OK, let’s talk about it. Now, I will answer all those things on the merits, but first I want to talk about the context in which this arises.

Clinton and Wallace get into it with Clinton using a combination of answers to criticisms and premise challenges to Wallace on his motives. Here are the best bits strung together.

Clinton: So you did Fox’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. What I want to know is…

Wallace: I want to ask a question. You don’t think that’s a legitimate question?

(Control has shifted to Clinton. It’s his agenda that now drives the interview. Wallace is responding to Clinton’s attack.)

Clinton: It was a perfectly legitimate question, but I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question of.

Wallace: We ask plenty of questions of…

Clinton: You didn’t ask that, did you? Tell the truth, Chris.

Clinton: ….And you came here under false pretences and said….

Wallace: …I didn’t think this would send you off on such a tear.

Clinton: You launched it – you set me off on a tear because you didn’t formulate it in an honest way and because you people ask me questions you don’t ask the other side.

Wallace: That’s not true. Sir, that is not true.

Wallace: Would you like to talk about the Clinton Global Initiative?

Clinton: No, I want to finish this now.

(Watch both parts on You Tube, links at the end.)

So, who won? Wallace. He got one of the best interviews a reporter could ever get. Clinton got to talk about his global initiative but it was lost in the political discussion that was present throughout. Clinton took the hook, fought valiantly and used premise challenge explicitly throughout, but Wallace got a great interview at the cost of having his nose figuratively but seriously bloodied by Clinton’s counterpunching premise challenges.

One final, quick example. Bill Parcells was the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League. His very controversial star receiver Terrell Owens, was reported to have tried to commit suicide with an overdose of medication. Parcells was holding his daily press conference following practice and knew next to nothing about the details of the situation. The Associated Press reported on the result.

“After getting almost strictly Owens-related questions, coach Bill Parcells cut off his usual 25-30 minute session after only nine-minutes. He ended it by getting up from his chair and saying, ‘When I find out what the hell is going on, you will know. Until then, I’m not getting interrogated for no reason.’”

Parcells picked up his water bottle and walked out. And yes, some media outlets carried that act on their sports news. So what? Parcells had provided reasonable responses to the questions – but he could not answer their questions precisely because he didn’t have the information. His exit was reasonable. No damage for walking out. If he had speculated and given them a controversial quote, they would have enjoyed the “gotcha” but also would have been wondering why he stayed in a vulnerable position.

As Diane Sawyer admitted in her interview, the reporters know what’s in the best interests of the interviewee. The interviewees need to know it too.

Copyright 2006

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Clinton Risks Violating the Fairness Bias

February 27, 2008

The all out attack on Barack Obama by competitor Hillary Clinton ahead of the crucial Ohio and Texas primaries risks violating the fairness bias of the undecided voters. It’s a risk that anyone in business runs when they decide to go at their opposition – whether at a shareholders’ meeting, a community forum, or through the media.

Why? Two reasons.
First, “life may not be fair, but humans have a strong bias for fairness,” says Lucas Laursen in the Feb/Mar issue of Scientific American MIND magazine. He notes that studies have found that relationships matter when people judge fairness. “Humans accepted unfair deals from computers but not from people.”

So, Clinton’s supporters (strong relationship) will likely accept unfair treatment of Obama, but the undecideds (neutral relationship) probably not. That may then be the deciding factor in how the undecideds vote.

So fairness is a key factor. It’s also very subjective and the perpetrator is usually a poor judge of fairness.

Second, Clinton may misstep in regard to the concept of relative credibility. Simply put it says that you should be very careful attacking someone with more credibility with the target audience than you  because, rather than driving them down, you drive yourself down and they go up in credibility. She better have objective data that says that with the undecideds she has more credibility or else she might just deliver the undecided vote to Obama.

I wrote a piece on relative credibility a few years ago and have replayed below the example I used for illustration.

Relative credibility in actionParty A, my client, was involved in a complex conflict involving litigation, grievances, and harassment with Party B. My client found the situation intolerable. Both parties finally agreed to appoint an experienced mediator to try to reach a settlement of all actions and issues.The mediator selected had vast experience as a litigation lawyer and mediator. He was not sympathetic to Party A as far as we could tell, but we thought he might be partial to Party B.Party A was eager to reach a settlement, but was also very emotional about the treatment its members had received at the hands of Party B and tended to show their emotions in any discussions involving Party B. Because of this, Party A’s credibility was diminished except with its supporters. The other party had enormous credibility because of historical goodwill.Once we had agreement within Party A that Party B probably had more credibility with the mediator starting out, we were able to devise a strategy to overcome this deficit. It worked better than we could have hoped.Party A stifled its instinct to “attack” Party B. Instead, Party A signalled through words and actions to the mediator that its goal was to reach an agreement – but not at any cost – and that Party A could and would provide the mediator with all of the information on the issues he might need to mediate the dispute.The members of Party A sat on their emotions and delivered the facts, the context and the co-operation that the mediator needed. Party A raised its credibility by their professionalism, candour, and co-operation. Party A also got a boost because an arrogant, uncooperative Party B destroyed the credibility it had.As Party A surpassed Party B in credibility with the mediator, Party B — probably not realizing that the relative credibility of the two parties had changed significantly– lost even more credibility and boosted Party A further by attacking it.The conflict was finally resolved and for the most part in Party A’s favour. Party A held a victory party. I doubt that Party B did. While the resolution took a very long time and many factors came into play, there was one constant: The mediator worked tirelessly and doggedly to get a settlement, which was his victory. By doing so, he was apparently driven – consciously or not – by the credible position and actions of Party A. This resulted in victory for Party A.

The Net Shortens the News Cycle

July 15, 2009

From Politico’s Arena comes a valuable comment from Christine Pelosi on 2 counts:

  1. A topical analysis of  Judge Sotomayor hearings on her nomination to SCOTUS
  2. A reference to a very interesting study on how the Net shortens the news cycle today

Here it is complete with the link to the Study:

Christine Pelosi, Attorney, author and Democratic activist:

From Judge Sotomayor’s hearings, we have learned that United States Senators are on the 24-hour news cycle and Supreme Court Justices are not.

It is perhaps a historic coincidence that America’s first Internet President, Barack Obama, sent up a Supreme Court nominee for confirmation hearings the same week that Cornell University published a landmark study - “Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle” – that demonstrated how the web shortens the news cycle. The Cornell researchers tracked the accelerated web-based circulation of ideas – scouring 90 million articles and blog posts during the 2008 campaign for the “genetic signatures” for ideas, memes, and story lines.

They found what most Americans already intuit: the Internet shortens the time in which a meme circulates from main stream media to blogs (2.5 hours) and into the popular culture, thus words have more weight as perceived evidence of a person’s character and philosophy. The study helps explain why the role of United States Senators in this Supreme Court Justice hearing is to elevate their chosen memes (“most experienced nominee in 100 years” “wise Latina” “prosecutor” “judicial activist” “moderate” to name a few) through repetition and questioning in order to quickly frame Judge Sotomayor’s character and philosophy, capture the conversation, and build momentum to justify their vote.

Meanwhile, by contrast, the role of Supreme Court Justices is to navigate a long-term jurisprudence cycle not a short-term news cycle. Court rulings rely heavily on precedence, must endure over time, and ideally are not swayed by the passions of the moment. As Judge Sotomayor said, “we don’t rule for the home crowd.”

But before she can be elevated to a lifetime appointment to work in the long-term jurisprudence cycle, Sotomayor must endure the last unblinking look of the 24-hour news cycle. Unlike nominees of the pre-Internet era, the judge’s public utterances were captured on tape and can be taken in or out of context with the stroke of a keyboard. Sotomayor must assess the weight of her words on and off the bench to show us her personal character and judicial philosophy without prejudging cases or adding new weight to badly chosen words. In the questioning to date, Democrats emphasize her words on the bench and Republicans emphasize her work off the bench.

She has demonstrated patience, intellect, and the ability to withstand withering patrimony with aplomb. To her credit, Judge Sotomayor is attempting a candid discussion on jurisprudence that will endure over a lifetime and avoiding a gaffe that will circulate in a news cycle.