In the Line of Fire

In the Line of Fire — How to Handle Tough Questions…When it Counts
by Jerry Weissman

This book and companion DVD (book and DVD also sold separately) address the issue of crisis communications for the CEO or other leader. How does one handle hostile questions from stockholders, the media, angry customers, etc., when other people are watching? How do you avoid looking guilty, shifty, nervous, clueless, or worse when the pressure is on and (seemingly) everyone is watching?

Jerry Weissman is an expert at making interview subjects squirm; he spent several years producing and writing for Mike Wallace of CBS News, renowned for his hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners style. Weissman takes that experience and applies it to start-up companies seeking investors, to politicians in debates and press conferences, and other business situations.

He compares the skills of dealing with difficult questions to martial arts skills such as agility, balance, concentration, and self-control. The one word that sums up his philosophy is control. “When you are confronted with tough questions, you can control the question, your answer, the questioner, the audience, the time, and yourself.” The last item, yourself, is the most important. If you can’t control yourself, then you won’t likely have the presence of mind to control the other factors.

He defines the “Q&A Cycle”– 1) open floor to questions; 2) recognize the questioner; 3) yield floor to questioner; 4) retake floor; and 5) provide answer. Contrary to some other experts, he recommends that those under fire always answer respond directly to the question being asked rather than use it to spring into a canned response that may have nothing to do with the questioner’s real concern.

He talks about the “Roman column” that is the key word (or two words) in every question, and how to listen attentively to find that one word. If it isn’t apparent, ask the questioner to repeat or clarify so it can be found. Then the answer can begin with addressing the questioner’s core issue, and proceed to make the responder’s key point or points in an authentic way. There are a few exercises where he asks the reader/viewer to pause and identify the “Roman column” in a question. Personally, I didn’t find this as easy as I thought it would be. It’s a skill worth learning, but which requires practice.

Most of the examples are drawn from political debates, presumably because they are more familiar to more people and because the video and transcripts are in the public domain. Familiar debates, such as Kennedy-Nixon, are featured along with more recent examples such as Al Gore vs. Ross Perot, George W. Bush vs. Al Gore and George W. Bush vs. John Kerrey.

The principles are applicable to a wide variety of situations, but I wish Weissman had spent a little more time applying them to different situations beyond a company’s CEO seeking investors for an IPO (a major part of his current consulting practice). The reader/viewer will need to do some work of their own to make extrapolations to their own situations.

His personal examples of great presenters under fire, interestingly, are both former military leaders: Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf. These leaders’ command and control of themselves, of information and facts readily at hand, and of the audience and the clock, is awe-inspiring. These men communicate more and better in a few minutes than most of us can do in an hour or more.

The book and video are definitely worth reading and studying. The video has the added bonus of the viewer being able to watch the author as a polished, controlled speaker in action.