Blog 29 November 2022

How Not to Answer Tough Questions

Impact Insights – Four Leaders, Four Lessons in Communications

What’s the question you fear most? Do you know what you’d do if you were asked it, on camera?  In this edition, we’re examining the art of answering tough questions. 

The curve-ball can come from a journalist, an investor or an employee, so it’s worth thinking what you would do, and what you wouldn’t. Here are three tactics to avoid, and one to follow.

Tactic #1: Run away

The awkward optics of being chased

  • For leaders in 2022, the reality is that cameras and questions can come from anywhere. And as Conservative minister Zac Goldsmith found out at COP27, inquisitions can come from 11-year olds.
  • When climate activist Licypriya Kangujam confronted Goldsmith about the imprisonment of protestors, he spoke to her briefly, and then tried to leave. She followed him.
  • Surprise interviews – what journalists call ‘doorstepping’ – are treacherous. They tend to make the interviewee look flustered or evasive.
  • And in the case of Mr. Goldsmith, what we saw was a man running from a child.
  • We’d say that assertively engaging with the question is the right approach. Chances are, you will get credit for thinking on your feet in a unfiltered situation. At the very least, you won’t look like you’re fleeing the scene.

The lesson for leaders: A doorstepping is an instant drama – with goodies and baddies. Your job is to take the drama out. Engaging at length and in detail will generally defuse the situation best.

Tactic #2: Say nothing

The sound of silence isn’t always powerful

  • Faced with a thorny question, it’s sensible to pause for a moment to compose a thoughtful answer. But it should just be a moment.
  • Last month, the deputy-leader of a Swedish region stood in silence for a full 26 seconds during a TV interview, before finally answering.
  • It was undoubtedly a tricky question – couldn’t your boss’s pay-rise have been better spent? – but we can’t imagine anyone in the municipality of Norrtälje was grateful for the global spotlight on their budgeting generated by the interview.

The lesson for leaders: The pause is powerful: it projects confidence, adds emphasis, and buys thinking time. But it has limits.

Tactic #3: Avoid and ignore

A recipe for an irate interviewer

  • While his brother was taking on the automotive and space travel industries, in 2018 Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal was setting a new standard in avoiding the question.
  • Fox News wanted to know about changes to the board of Tesla, but Mr Musk was keen only to talk about his passion project, ‘Plant a Seed Day’. And he wouldn’t budge.
  • “They don’t care!” shouted anchor Stuart Varney. But Kimbal gave no ground. In the end, his refusals became a news item of their own.

Lesson for leaders: Outright avoidance will anger your interrogator. Acknowledge the question, and engage as far as you can, before decisively moving on.

Tactic #4: Engage, with energy

Make your demeanour your defence

  • Microsoft’s CEO is facing into the toughest economic weather of his tenure, with tech companies leading a downward trajectory in the stock market. So is he going to fire people? CNBC presenter Tanvir Gill was persistent in this clip.
  • Satya Nadella has a tough job here. He has to paint a positive picture for employees, but signal to investors that he’s pragmatic and willing to manage the business in line with economic reality.
  • His approach is well-balanced. There’s truth-telling (“we’re committed to balancing operating expenses and revenue growth”), but it’s wrapped up in a bullish, upbeat delivery, with examples that speak to medium-term optimism.
  • Occasional handwringing during his answers might telegraph hidden anxiety, but the overall impression is of a leader with a clear plan for tough times.

Lesson for leaders: Bullishness works. Viewers register how you make them feel before they hear what you say.


If you’re interested in enhancing the impact you make, get in touch with the Impact Communication team. We’re helping leaders every day to make stronger connections with the media, their employees, their peers and investors. Email: [email protected]