High Stakes Q&A: Try These Tips

Even if you’ve been avoiding the news at all costs, you probably heard that one of the most high-stakes, public Q&A sessions of the year happened last week. An estimated 19.5 million people watched it on network television, and that doesn’t count those who live-streamed it from their desks, since after all, it happened from 10am-1pm ET on a work day. (By comparison, only 16 million tuned into Game 3 of the NBA Playoffs during prime time.)

Put your thoughts about domestic and international politics on pause – just for a moment – and learn about how to handle a tough Q&A session.

Whether you tuned in for Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee or not, would you expect the former director of the FBI to be good at Q&A? Yes, of course.

But that’s not what drove us to write this blog.

From a communication perspective, Comey was incredible. He appeared honest, unflappable and believable. Though we’ve shared Q&A do’s and don’ts before, there is more to learn.

Here are five communication takeaways we can learn from his testimony:

  1. Connect with Humility and Vulnerability. Comey acknowledged that he didn’t react in the best way. He acknowledged that he didn’t have more courage to call out the president. And he didn’t come off as a know-it-all in answering the questions. Humility and vulnerability are powerful tools when it comes to connecting with your audience and developing an emotional connection.
  2. Humor (at appropriate points) Works. He said he broke a date with his wife to have dinner with the president. It made us laugh! To clarify, he didn’t make a mockery of the session or the questions. He used humor to add levity. He also kept it factually accurate.
  3. Being Respectful Earns Respect. Comey answered all the questions thoughtfully and earnestly. He didn’t even come across as impatient when the questions were nit-picky or less-relevant. When you’re in the hot-seat for Q&A, respect is earned by being succinct, complete, patient and forthcoming.
  4. Protect Sensitive Information. No need to distort the truth or water down the details if there is something too sensitive to reveal. Comey simply said, “I cannot speak about that in an open session.” This is a model response for classified details.
  5. If You Don’t Know, Say So. Even more importantly than keeping sensitive information in the right hands is acknowledging when you don’t know. This can be the trickiest one to apply when you are called upon to be a subject matter expert. It’s tempting to feign familiarity. Instead, it’s always best to address it honestly and head-on.

So much of the communication experience hinges on first impressions. What was so impressive about Comey was his consistency throughout the testimony.

It will be interesting to see how Trump stacks up in a my-word-against-his battle. What do you think?