21 Tactics Spokespeople Use to Manage Tough Questions

We’re pretty excited to have a new contributor sharing his experience and research in the world of risk communication. Dr. Roger Miles was introduced to us via another contributor after they met while attending a course at the Harvard School of Public Health

Roger teaches graduate level risk-related psychology at Cambridge University and the United Kingdom Defence Academy. He is the co-editor of the London School of Economics annual Behavioral Economics Guides and publishes best practice guidance articles for bankers, insurers, actuaries, and various risk management specialists. He also counsels corporations on human risk factors and uncertainty, and delivers customized risk workshops for leadership groups in government, non-government organizations and the private sector.

Roger is also the author of Conduct Risk Management: Using a Behavioural Approach to Protect Your Board and Financial Services Business, hot off the presses Jan. 3.

 The piece below is in English English, not American English because we’re too lazy to translate and it’s technically still English, after all. We also like words with extra vowels, as well as expressions like, “Westminster types” and Harry Potter references.

One final note … this piece simply identifies tactics you’ve seen or seen and didn’t know you saw … we make no judgment as to the efficacy or their ‘ethicacy’, as it were.

 Enjoy, Paul.

nicknaylor

Nick Naylor, the master of misdirection.

In the days before YouTube, professional spin-doctors would teach senior managers the following tactics as game-plays for use against hostile interrogators in live broadcasts (think The Today Programme, Watchdog etc.). I happen to know this because – confession time – before turning academic, I used to be one of those ‘dark arts’ teachers. Not, perhaps, the ethical high point of my career, but it was and is a well-paid activity because nervous business leaders everywhere are happy to strike a Faustian deal to learn these skills before an interviewer attacks them on camera. (I think I’ve paid my dues to society since then, by retraining as a psychologist who analyzes devious behaviours in organizations.) The findings that follow are informed both by life experience and professionally.

So now here it all is, twenty years’ experience of spin-tutoring and cognitive science, free to you. Happy reading!

The Basic Aim

 An evasive interviewee, such as a politician or business leader who’s in a tight spot ethically, aims to play a simple underlying game. Whatever the interviewee actually ends up saying, their aim is to shift the interviewer’s attention away from any unwelcome question. Ideally, shift it towards a more favourable topic. If you are not the one facing this inquisition – which is, let’s face it, statistically more likely if you’re reading this – you can have far more fun trying to spot interviewees attempting to use each game-play. (As a people-watching game, think of this as a pro variant of that favourite meeting-room pastime, bullsh*t bingo – which if you don’t know, we’ll have to look at another time. Eyes down for a full house, everyone?)

I offer a shortlist of game-plays, and how they’re supposed to work, in the chart on the following pages. There are obviously hundreds more variants and nuances, but with limited space here, I’ve stuck to the most frequently seen examples.

The Underlying Approaches 

In case you were interested in the psychology bit, we’ll look briefly at that wide view first, before zooming in on individual game-plays. The best gambits work at several levels, including cognitive, physical and structural. In slightly plainer terms, this means doing things such as:

  1. Misdirection: A simple, age-old trick used by stage magicians everywhere: Get the audience to look the wrong way, over there, so they’re distracted whilst you rearrange something (sleight-of-hand) over here. It takes some cheek, and a perfect poker-face, to use this ploy in its purest form (see number 21).
  2. Reframing (such a common trick that it has dozens of aliases – euphemism, lexical shift, sense-making, message-massage, ‘gaslighting’, ‘dissonance blurring’, etc). Several Nobel Prizes have gone to the psychologists who helped explain how this game-play works, but we’ll keep it simple here. The trick here is to respond to the question, all right, but to use different words to label the topic in the answer, as in the classic: You ask me about failures, I reply to you about challenges. Used with skill, this technique can blur people’s perception of what is true, and even of what is real. (There could be a great second career in politics for TV magicians such as Derren Brown and Dynamo, who entertain us by befuddling passers-by.)
  3. Exploiting the medium: Whilst we may have regarded TV news as an efficient way to deliver knowledge to large numbers of people, in fact it has some serious practical limitations as a means of delivering knowledge to masses of people. Any interviewee who knows a bit about how an audience assimilates a broadcast can play the news machine like a violin. For example, tactic number 1 below looks counter-intuitive – you’d think that repeating a question would draw more attention it. In fact, “it ain’t necessarily so”: The short-frequency attention span of a typical TV viewer (at least when watching static interviews) means that the simple act of repeating a phrase can break their concentration, so that they then miss what’s said next. Cynical or what?
  4. Taking “just a minute (or three)” to explain: Known in the news business as “talking out”, or by Westminster types as “filibustering”, this is another well-worn play on the format limitations of live broadcast news. A seasoned interviewee knows that each live news item is normally fitted into a fixed time slot (typically three minutes). All that he or she has to do, then, is talk for three minutes, brushing off the interviewer’s interruptions, so as to fill up the time with anything that doesn’t address the unwelcome question. Most of the listed tactics, but particularly the “rewind” intervention (numbers 4 to 6), help in some way to clear a path for this approach.

The Game-plays

  Response tactic Payoff / next move forward
1 Please repeat the question. Buys time; detaches audience’s attention; invites interviewer to reframe the question, making space for other response tactics. If stuck, do it twice and then segue into another tactic.
2 I don’t quite understand the question; if you mean…, then… Rephrase question in terms you prefer, then proceed to answer it in those terms
3 That depends on… …raise random external factor / independent variable and talk the time out
4 That’s quite another subject. The real point is that… …revert to point you wanted to make; talk the time out
5 You’ve got to look at it in the context of its history. It really began… …talk it out (see 17)
6 Before I answer that, you’ve got to understand the detailed procedure/context. …talk it out (see 16)
7 It appears to me… …revert to prepared answer
8 As I recall it… …revert to prepared answer
9 I don’t recall that.   Let’s look at it in terms of… …revert to prepared answer
10 I wouldn’t know as much as you… / I have no firsthand experience of that but I have heard… This is a “snark”: By implicitly the questioning interviewer’s authority, it enhances yours; allows for shift to more familiar ground
11 It varies because… …shift focus to new external factor / variable
12 Sometimes it does work that way, but… see also numbers 10, 19
13 It’s not a question of yes or no. Escapes a “binding” question. Bridge with: It’s a question of degree; do we want more or less… OR: What is important is that we consider… .
14 Your question seems to be splitting hairs / playing with words. Let me make it quite clear… Then revert to prepared answer. Often in fact used as a bridge to an unfocused answer.
15 You need to understand the reason. It was not one thing that started /caused this, but many. For example… …raise new external factor

 

16 Let’s be specific:… (in answer to a general question)
17 In general terms, it works like this: (in answer to a specific question)
18 Let’s break the question down into its parts… …then just answer the preferred one
19 No, it’s not quite the way you said. Challenges the premise of the question. Then reframe:

It’s a matter of how you look at it…; I don’t mean to quibble with you but…; I can’t agree with the statement part of your question.

20 I can’t talk about that now because… ..of other considerations, restrictions, precedents (real, or spurious) – but mainly because I just don’t want to
21 Let me put it like this: … …say whatever you were going to say anyway, gambling that the original question gets dropped as the debate moves on audience attention wandering. A favourite technique of Prime Minister Thatcher, who would ignore a question completely if it suited her to.

More, please

As always, I’m interested in anyone’s real-life experiences, examples and further suggestions. Let me know what you think – and meanwhile, happy dodger-spotting!

Further reading

If you’d like to know more about the psychology and perception science that underlie these tactics, you might like to read some of these:

Eric Berne (1970) Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships

Lee Clarke (1999) Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster

Stanley Cohen (2001) States of Denial

C.L.Karrass (1974): Give & Take: Negotiating Strategies & Tactics

Daniel Kahneman (2002) Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics, (Nobel Prize acceptance speech)

Niklaus Luhmann (1998) Ecology of Ignorance

John F. Nash and others (1994) Nobel Prize Seminar: The Work of John Nash in Game Theory

Gresham Sykes and Matza, David (1957) Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency

Paul Sandman (1987) Risk Communication: Facing Public Outrage

Paul Slovic and others (2004) Risk as Analysis and Risk as Feelings: Some Thoughts about Affect, Reason, Risk and Rationality

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann (1981) The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice

von Neumann and O. Morgenstern (1947) Theory of Games and Economic Behavior

Weick, Karl E. (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations

Talk to me, Goose.

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