President Bush has recently shifted gears on the media front, going directly to live audiences with his message. Today, speaking in Cleveland about the Iraqi war, he opened the floor to questions--and he got plenty, non of them apparently pre-screened. Given his lowly ratings (36 percent favorable ratings by one poll), Bush would seem to have nothing to lose. But anytime a public figure opens up to an unfiltered Q&A, there are risks. Sure enough, there were some hard hitting questions, particularly about the Iraqi war. USA Today article on Bush speech
For politicians or corporate executives who do Q&As, there are some basic tips to keep in mind:
- Try to anticipate every possible question, write them down, and practice your answers.
- Repeat the question so everyone can hear it.
- Avoid being defensive. Answer the question as directly as possible. Sometimes it helps to confront the question head-on. Leaders who do it right get more respect than dodging the question. When I was at Intel, and the company was under fire, I watched as CEO Andy Grove took a series of hardball questions during a "town hall" employee meeting. The stock was plunging at the time. "Don't we have a PR department?" one wise guy engineer asked. "You're talking to the top PR guy at the company," Grove shot back. 'And believe me, we're working on it."
(By the way, Grove was one of the execs who loved to spar with people and the press when it was an issue he believed in. And in his case, it usually worked).
- Admit mistakes, and then move on. Talk about what you learned and/or what you're doing to overcome them, move ahead. Bush appeared to miss at least one opportunity on this front. When a man asked about whether the administration's prewar claims-- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, sponsored the9/11 terrorists, and had purchased nuclear-bomb materials--were false, Bush disputed him. "I don't think we ever said — at least I know I didn't say — that there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein. We did say he was a state sponsor of terror." He never admitted that it was a mistake going into another country under these pretenses, or the lessons learned. These questions will continue to fester as long as Bush refuses to acknowledge the original misteps.
- If you don't know the answer, admit it. And avoid fighting back when you're under attack; instead, go with your instinct. When A woman cited a book whose author says the Bush administration has reached out to "radical" Christians who see the war and terrorism as signs of a coming apocalypse, Bush won some points with his halting answer: "The answer is," he said and paused. "I haven't really thought of it that way," he said finally, to audience laughter. "First I've heard of that, by the way." He then went on to make his points about the war.
- "Bridge" to another point: One approach is to shift it to something you do know, "I can't tell you exactly how much we're making in that area, but what I can tell you is we a lot of potential in XYZ field..Add some stats, etc. But be careful--you don't want to sound like you're trying to dodge a legitimate question. You can also offer to have someone get back to them with the answer--unless you're the president of the U.S.
- Stop any rambling questioners, and don't let one person dominate. One tip is to move toward the (overbearing) questioner, then turn to the rest of the audience and start answering the question. By doing so, you're directing energy to the rest of the audience, not just one person.
- Be gracious, humble, direct and humorous--at the right time. Timing is everything.