GENERAL C. Powell’s BEST under-PRESSURE techniques
Colin Powell, former United States four star general and Secretary of State, lists 15 lessons on handling the media on pages 132-133 of his book, It worked for me. He shared these Lessons with a person named Cal, whom he was mentoring.
Many of the techniques can be applied to any under-pressure situations.
Media handling lessons:
- They get to pick the questions. You get to the pick the answers.
- You don’t have to answer any question you don’t want to.
- Never lie or dissemble, of course; but beware of being too candid or open.
- Never answer hypothetical questions about the future.
- Never reveal the private advice you have given your superiors
- Answers should be directed to the message you want the readers/viewers to get. The interviewers are not your audience.
- They’re doing their job. You’re doing yours. But you’re the only one at risk.
- Don’t predict or speculate about future events.
- Beware of slang or one-liners unless you are consciously trying to produce a sound bite.
- Don’t wash dirty linen.
- Do not answer any question containing a premise you disagree with.
- Don’t push yourself or be pushed into an answer you don’t want to give.
- If trapped, be vague or mumble.
- Never cough or shift your feet.
- When there are second follow-up questions, you’re in trouble – break right, apply power, gain altitude, or eject.”
In his book, Powell shared additional lessons including “Never shift in your chair, grab your ear or touch your face; Never pause to think of what to say. Start talking while you are thinking. You can always just repeat the question”.
My thoughts about Powell’s lessons are these:
Overall, the lessons are great.
Regarding Lesson #3, being too open or candid can be the result of not taking enough time to organize your thoughts. Great under-pressure speakers, before responding to a questions, aren’t afraid to say, “Give me a moment to think about that.” My view is, you can pause to think what to say.
“you don’t get marked down for being thoughtful”.
Master speaker, Bob Carr (former Foreign Minister of Australia) in my 2008 Choice Voice – Lessons from great speaking voices interview with him, suggested that to organize your thoughts, begin a response with, “On first thought . . .” (and then share what’s top of mind). Then you can add as appropriate, “Giving it more thought . . . “ (if another idea bubbles up in your mind).
Carr also suggested that you call out tough questions by saying, “Tough question” or “That’s a challenging one.
Regarding Lesson #11,’Do not answer any question containing a premise you disagree with’, a good response is: “I don’t agree with the premise of your question.”
Regarding Lesson #13, my view is that it is fine to be vague but I would avoid mumbling as that will form a negative impression. Another response when being trapped is to say, ‘It’s not appropriate for me to comment on that.”
I disagree with Powell’s additional lesson of “Start talking while you’re thinking”. I’ve seen too many speakers in high pressure situations derail themselves by doing this.
Own the Conversation
For the next seven days do this:
Choose one of the above points and work on it. For example,
- Don’t cough or shift your feet or touch your face during any interaction, including pressured ones.
- Practice saying, ‘On first thought . . .’ at a meeting, even when you do have a definitive answer. Hearing yourself speak a phrase/word aloud, in a non-pressured interaction, will make the word/phrase ‘available’/easier to retrieve when under pressure.
p.s here’s a post on the importance of ‘Digging your well before you’re thirsty’.