How Not to Answer a Question


Don’t fall victim to these common Q&A pitfalls

There are plenty of wrong ways to answer a question. Especially one from the media.

Not responding at all. This results in a “So-and-so could not be reached for comment.” Or, worse, “So-and-so refused to comment on the matter.”

Solution: There’s always something thoughtful you can say so you don’t seem evasive. Make sure that you respond promptly. This could mean within a matter of minutes, not hours. Reporters work under very tight deadlines.

“No comment.” This unassuming little phrase causes endless grief. First, it looks like you’re hiding something. Second, it invites the reporter to dig deeper. (This is exactly what you’re trying to avoid, isn’t it?)

Solution: Before an interview, anticipate sticky questions you might get asked and prepare answers. Don’t make promises you can’t keep and don’t paint yourself into a corner.

Rambling. If you try to cram too much into your answer, you’ll lose your audience and possibly your train of thought.

Solution: To avoid a case of The Rambles, define in advance the two to three key points that are most important to support your message. Stick to them.

Flat-out stating “Our message is…” Yes, it’s important to have a message and convey it. After all, that’s the point of the interview. But beating your audience over the head with it is off-putting and can actually lower your chance of getting through to them.

Solution: Luckily, this one is simple — Don’t utter those words.

“We’re not here to discuss that.” It’s likely you’ll encounter a question that’s not aligned with your key message or talking points. But telling a reporter or anyone else that it’s off-limits won’t get you far.

Solution: Briefly acknowledge the question, then bridge your answer back to the message that you want to talk about. Politicians are usually (but not always) a prime example of this.

Then there was the increasingly irritated approach taken by Donald Trump in a 2011 interview with George Stephanopoulos about the theory that President Obama hadn’t been born in the U.S. Trump took dodging a question to a whole new level. (It seriously flares up around minute three.)

Stephanopoulos: You said that you sent investigators to Hawaii and you said quote: “They cannot believe what they’re finding.”
Trump: We’re going to see what happens, George.
Stephanopoulos: What have they found?
Trump: Well that’s none of your business right now. We’re going to see what happens.
Stephanopoulos: Have they found anything?
Trump: We’re going to see what happens.
Stephanopoulos: What have they done?
Trump: We are going to see what happens.
Stephanopoulos: When?
Trump: George…Next question, George.

Trump made two big mistakes.

First, he didn’t provide a strong enough answer that stood on its own without inviting obvious follow-up questions. He looked and sounded evasive. If he’d crafted his response ahead of time, he could have simply restated it in slightly different ways, then shifted the conversation back to his key message. Stephanopoulos eventually would’ve realized he wasn’t getting anywhere and moved on.

Second, he threw Stephanopoulos the ‘tude. During an interview it’s important to be calm and gracious. Appear as if you’re sincerely trying to impart valuable information.


“Because Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset”

Gillott Communications is a Strategic PR firm. We’re Fixers. Crisis & Reputation Management. Litigation. Media Relations. Crisis Prep. More than half a century of expertise working with clients to resolve issues both in and outside the media’s glare — in their professional and personal lives.

You can reach Roger Gillott and Eden Gillott Bowe directly at 310-396-8696.

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One thought on “How Not to Answer a Question

  1. Pingback: How Not to Answer A Question: Part Two | Gillott Communications | Protecting Your Reputation

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