ambush interview

Talking on Your Feet in Impromptu Moments

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” you know how funny improvisational humor can be. But when you are forced to make impromptu comments at a company meeting or in a public setting, funny usually isn’t your goal.

“Speaking off the cuff is a different kind of skill from prepared speaking. However, it can be just as important as a prepared speech – perhaps even more so,” says speech coach Allison Shapira.

The same rules apply. Don’t meander into your message. Be sensitive to your body language. Make a single, solid point. Know when to stop. 

The same cautionary notes apply, too. Be wary of jokes. Avoid sliding into jargon or gibberish. Don’t say the first thing that pops into your mind. Remember brevity is better than boring.

Easier said than done, you say, especially if you are caught off guard by a request to speak. True, but the possibility of being called on should disabuse anyone they are just spectators at a meeting. As Shapira advises, “Be present.” Pay attention. Stay off your iPhone. Engage in the topic.

A trick to keep your mind alert is thinking about a question you could ask. Thinking about a question can get you into an answering-frame-of-mind. Even better, train yourself to think about what you could say, whether asked or not.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

Silent participation can be read by others as disinterest, timidity or lack of anything worth contributing. Those aren’t the traits that lead to job promotions. 

Shapira says speakers can prepare for formal presentations and impromptu opportunities. Leaders, experts or people in the middle of a controversy should definitely develop and practice impromptu speaking skills.

Media training, especially for crisis communications, can prepare speakers to deal with surprise questions and unexpected issues. Think of a request to make an impromptu comment as roughly the same as an ambush interview. You may be caught off guard, but don’t be caught unprepared.

Practice the skill of condensing what you say to a single key message and offering two or three supporting points. This approach requires discipline and focus, which happen to be exactly what you need when speaking without prepared remarks.

Experienced speakers, especially ones who have the scars from previous impromptu boo-boos, may venture into light humor and even storytelling (especially if a story is the request). However, be careful. If someone asks for your opinion, giving them a story may not seem responsive – and may not convey the real point you want to make. Self-deprecating humor has its place, but probably not when responding to a question in business meeting.

Speaking clearly is a requirement for effective communication in writing, presenting or speaking. You can practice clarity when you write emails or memos or when you create a PowerPoint. Clarity requires diligent editing, self-restraint and a genuine concern for your audience. If you want your audience to read or hear what you say, make it easy for them to know what you are saying.

The stakes may be higher than you realize. Your ability to talk on your feet can earn your esteem in the eyes of others, including bosses or critics.

“Every day, you can build trust with your colleagues or clients,” Shapira says. “How you communicate in those impromptu interactions – your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer – builds trust.”

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

There Are No Throwaway Questions in Interviews

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

Wary reporters have taken to a tactic of asking an out-of-the-blue question at the end of what otherwise might be a routine interview. Whatever the purpose, such questions can send well-rehearsed spokespeople skidding off script, blurring their key message and making the wrong kind of “news.”

For that reason, media training these days includes “ambush interview” techniques and how to combat them.

Ambushing spokespeople is one way reporters are responding to rote, opaque or superficial statements. Those of us who coach spokespeople are responding by adding training to address what can be a very disorienting – and potentially disheartening – end to an interview.

It is important for spokespeople to remember there are no throwaway questions in an interview. Each question is a live-stakes interaction and should be treated with respect – and awareness.

Ambush questions tend to occur when entities or spokespeople are evasive, non-responsive or arrogant. It is a reporter’s way to get-even or level the playing field. Instead of regarding ambush questions as impertinent or a trap, spokespeople should view them as reporters trying to do their job.

The best way to avoid being ambushed is to say something when being interviewed. A well-prepared spokesperson should have a key message centered on action, not evasion. Reporters may still push for more detail or question the motivation for action, but that’s where solid preparation comes into play. A spokesperson should have practiced to parry with a reporter or a press conference full of reporters.

Former President Bill Clinton, no stranger to high-pressure interviews and ambush questions, stumbled over NBC correspondent Craig Melvin’s direct question about whether he personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky. While his interview with Melvin was nominally about the new book the former President has co-written with James Patterson, Clinton should not have been surprised about Lewinsky questions. In the shadow of the #MeToo movement, he absolutely should have anticipated a question about whether and how he apologized to Lewinsky.

In reality, Clinton ambushed himself by failing to prepare or not preparing well enough. It is a common mistake that can keep a crisis grinding on for another news cycle or rekindle an old ember into a fresh fire.

Whether it is the first question or the last question, each question can have a purpose – and maybe an underlying motivation. Spokespeople need to protect themselves and the organization they speak for by:

  • Knowing their subject
  • Mastering their key message
  • Anticipating questions
  • Preparing for obvious and not-so-obvious questions
  • Practicing

You are less likely to be surprised if you go into a media interview with something newsworthy to say – and say it in a clear, plainspoken way. The trickier you try to be, the more you invite in-kind behavior from reporters. If you try to brush them off, don’t be surprised if they try to ambush you.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

Slow-Walking a Fast-Breaking Crisis

In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the hare, after a fast start, loses the race to the slow-moving, but steady tortoise. In the real word of crisis response, the tortoise almost never wins.

We live in a real-time world where crises can erupt or be inflamed by an iPhone video. Trying to respond by telegraph just doesn't cut it. If you can't keep up, reporters will look for and find news sources who will, with or without all the facts.

Smart crisis response involves gathering your facts, crafting your message and telling your story. A slow-walking response to a fast-breaking crisis can bury your facts, message and storytelling in the blur. Worse yet, a slow-moving response can become another trigger that propels news velocity.

Large organizations that haven't anticipated cruising in the crisis fast lane struggle to approve key statements or proactive steps. Legal considerations often play an outsized role in bogging down a crisis response that can play a significant role in the court of public opinion.

Complex corporate structures and attorneys, however, don't have to be obstacles, and they shouldn't be excuses. The solution requires open-eyed crisis preparation, starting with an acknowledgement that a crisis can and probably will happen and the response must be in the same time zone.

Crisis preparation should include specific ways to speed fact-finding, conduct legal reviews and approve actions and statements. One or more officials must be identified to take the lead in the event of a crisis and undergo stress-testing before they show up in front of microphones.

Stress testing and incident exercises based on likely crisis scenarios go well beyond basic media training. They teach how to stay cool while walking on hot media coals, often with only shreds of verified information and sometimes after being ambushed by reporters. Being out front on a cascading crisis requires mental quickness that eclipses the sedentary pace of sitting down for a one-on-one media interview or chatting up financial analysts.

Ordinary question-and-answer prep doesn't prepare a spokesperson for answering a question in the form of a video shot by an eye-witness to the crisis event.

Many corporate leaders don't want to be embarrassed by "failing" their stress tests with their top lieutenants looking on. But failure in this kind of media training is the first step toward success. Moreover, it is much better to fail in front of a few people you know than to fall flat in front of a bank of reporters.

If the thought arises that a slow-walked response could allow time to pass so the crisis goes away, think again. There are too many media incentives and too many communications channels for any crisis of note to disappear.

You wouldn't saunter to safety in the face of a swelling wave ready to pound the beach. You shouldn't saunter on crisis response, either.

Media Training: Screen Tests for Spokespersons

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Dealing with the news media is not a spectator sport. It takes discipline and practice not unlike an actor learning to play a part and deliver lines in character.

Actors don't show up on stage unprepared, and neither should spokespersons. Media training is a must.

For people with media backgrounds, with lots of actual experience or who have taken media training before, media training can be an invaluable refresher course. You can always perform better.

Media training tutorials can cover a wide landscape of communications realities and challenges. But effective media training sessions always include exercises that put your speaking and thinking-on-your-feet skills to the test. We call them stress tests.

We have found the most effective stress tests require trainees to identify what they need to say, develop a key message and refine that message into something approaching a sound bite. We ask trainees to anticipate issues and questions they will face in an interview – maybe even an ambush interview – with an aggressive print or broadcast media reporter.

The interviews are digitally recorded so trainees can see themselves perform. They usually are their own harshest critics, noticing distracting twitches, slouchy posture or roving eyes.

Our media training sessions preferably include two stress tests. That way trainees get a second chance to clean up mistakes they made in the first interview.

When time allows, we like to preface the stress tests with an exercise aimed at helping people find their own voice. This usually involves asking a trainee to compose a short story about a subject near and dear to their heart and then relate it orally without notes. This low-stress experience gives trainees a chance to concentrate on a power position and eye contact without having to think too much about tricky subject matter or questions hurled from left field.

The tutorial section of the training offers some background on the changing face of the news media, new technologies that have accelerated the pace of news cycles and reporting ethics and responsibilities. We also cover social media, including the emergence of Twitter as a terrific real-time way to update the news media, employees and key stakeholders in a crisis.

But the heart of the media training is the role-playing experience in front of a camera. A key first step is to overcome the aversion of practicing to perform. CEOs can be the worst. They typically became CEOs because of their abilities to speak well and think on their feet. But as former Disney CEO Michael Eisner proved with his comment about "beautiful women not being funny," you aren't as prepared as you think you are.

Success in front of the camera starts with careful preparation, often in a compressed time frame. Very few people are capable of matching a moment on the spot with the right comment and emotional empathy. It is why actors do their homework before they play a part. They have to assimilate their role and make the script their own.

The purpose of media training is to give spokespersons the perspective, the tools and the tips to write an effective key message and deliver it in perfect pitch.

Media training stress tests are like screen tests for actors. They show your potential and what you need to work on to play your part. 

If you are or may be a spokesperson, arm yourself with media training. It's a smarter option than winging it.

CFM provides customized media trainings for a wide variety of clients. Contact CFM today to learn more. 

The Ambush Interview

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

You agree to an interview, but when the reporter shows up, he suddenly switches to a surprise and controversial topic. You have been ambushed.

You also can be ambushed when a reporter and a cameraman jump you en route to a meeting, asking uncomfortable questions in an equally uncomfortable setting.

The ambush interview is a newsgathering technique reporters employ to get a scoop. They may have new, explosive information or a hunch they will encounter reticence in a news source.

Like any ambush, the ambush interview can be painful. Like any communication crisis, the ambush interview can be a moment of truth where you can shine.

The nature of ambushes makes them hard to anticipate. But corporate leaders, spokespeople, political figures and public agency directors would be wise to prepare. Here are a few tips:

  • Avoid appearing defensive. Don't stomp off from the interview. An iPhone picture of your back can look like a guilty verdict. Take command, face your interviewer and say you aren't prepared to talk about the subject. Turn the tables and invite them to come back later when you are ready.
  • Be aware of ambush points. You may not anticipate when an ambush might occur, but you can anticipate the kind of material that might lead to an ambush. Identify those issues and have a prepared answer in your pocket if you are ambushed. Even a short answer is better than no answer or fumbling for an answer. If you can't provide an answer, clearly state why.
  • Remain calm. Your demeanor is probably the strongest message you can deliver. If you stay calm, you tell the reporter, "I can handle your pressure." Keeping calm provides space for you to negotiate – rescheduling an interview, moving the interview to a more appropriate setting or offering some context on the issue.
  • Don't get sucker-punched. If you successfully defend yourself in hand-to-hand combat with the reporter, don't let him sucker punch you with "Well then, let's talk off the record." This is just another, close-range ambush. A simple response: "Let's talk when I'm prepared" or "Let's talk when the facts are in" is a graceful exit from the reporter's trap.

Maintaining good media relations habits is one way to avert ambush interviews. Return calls from reporters so they don't feel the need to ambush you. Establish rapport with the reporters that routinely cover your company, nonprofit or agency, so you have a reservoir of trust. Be straight with reporters. Be willing to talk about the good and the bad, so you build credibility.

The digital age has made virtually anyone a "reporter." While the ambush interview is a challenge, the ambush by someone with a smartphone who records what you thought was a private moment poses a much greater challenge.

If you are someone with any degree of public profile, the best advice is to believe you are in a perpetual ambush zone. Don't let down your guard. Be prudent and thoughtful in what you say and do. Don't be surprised by an ambush.