If the topic of your book or public speaking engagement is remotely controversial, be prepared for a tough, angry, hostile question at your next book signing or speaking gig.
One of the very best ways to deal with the question?
Don’t answer it. Simply respond to it by pivoting to your key message. A key message is the Number One thing you want your audience to remember as a result of your presentation.
That’s what Chelsea Clinton did when she was signing a copy her her new book, “It’s Your World” at a book signing in Austin on Friday and got this question from Robert Morrow, a conservative activist who showed up, mobile phone in hand, shooting video of her:
“Has your mother ever told you that you’re the daughter of Webb Hubbell, and not Bill Clinton?” Morrow asked, referring to the fallen Justice Department official and Clinton confidant who the tabloids have claimed had an affair with Hillary Clinton.
Without skipping a beat, Chelsea closed the book she had signed, looked up, and responded. “I’m so proud to be my parents’ daughter.”
Morrow asked a follow-up question about whether her book targets girls. After she answered, he asked: “Would you say Bill Clinton also targets teenage girls, except for sexual reasons?”
She ignored the question and talked instead about the positive reaction to her book.
Responding with a prepared key message avoids saying anything that makes you look angry or combative—exactly what gadflies are trying to force you to do. Knowing your key message helps you feel more confident and keeps you from getting tongue-tied or rattled.
Chelsea, a political lightning rod, has been media trained. She knew Robert Morrow because when he approached her, she greeted him with, “Hi Robert” and a smile, without appearing frightened or uncomfortable.
If you don’t have the budget to hire a media trainer, less than an hour of preparation can help. Use these tips when you’re doing a media interview, too, even if you’re confident the interviewer will treat you fairly.
How to Prepare for Difficult Questions
If you don’t have a controversial topic, you won’t have to worry 99 percent of the time. Still, it pays to be prepared. You never know who might end up at your book signing, mobile phone in hand, pointed directly at you, intending to post the video online.
Here are three tips on how to prepare.
1. Don’t obsess on a long list of negative questions people might ask.
Instead, craft a well-thought out, easy-to-understand key message you can pivot to when someone asks a question that’s out of bounds. You can use that same key message with other questions too.
You probably already know the answers to 9 out of 10 innocent questions people might ask. But trying to guess every oddball, tough, angry, hostile question—and then figuring out how you’re going to answer them—can drive you crazy.
2. If you don’t know the answer to an innocent question, it’s OK to say so. But here’s a better option…
A more effective alternative is to say something like, “That isn’t clear. But I can tell you that….” And then bridge to your key message or something you do know.
Here’s a helpful video from Brad Phillips, aka “Mr. Media Training” and author of the book “The Media Training Bible.” He explains this technique, used by the correspondents of the major networks when they’re reporting live, and the in-studio anchor asks a question they can’t answer.
3. Don’t speculate.
Never speculate about anything. It can come back to bite you later if your prediction is way off base. Answer, “I won’t speculate, but what’s clear is that…..”
4. Know the various bridging statements.
Bridging statements transition from the question to your key message. They include:
“I think it would be more accurate (or correct) to say…”
“Here’s the real problem…”
“What I’ve said comes down to this…”
“Let me emphasize again…”
“What matters most in this situation is…”
The Most Controversial Topics
Here are the most controversial topics that generate the most debate and heat. Do your books or speech topics tie into any of these, even remotely? If so, it’s imperative that you’re ready with your key message.
- How to deal with terrorists
- Border control
- Gun control
- The death penalty
- Global warming
- Legalizing marijuana
- National health care
- Plastic surgery
- Stem cell research
- Gay rights
- Minimum mandatory sentencing
- Legalized prostitution
- Smoking bans
- Transgender issues
What controversial topics have I missed? What are your biggest fears about being asked difficult questions? Has this ever happened to you? If so, how did you handle it?
The Comments section awaits.