Bernard O'Riordan, Clarity Media Trainer
If you are like me, you're probably a little tired of hearing and reading about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and that interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Over the past month we've been bombarded with so many forensic insights from body language experts, crisis communicators and brand gurus, that many of us have probably started to tune out.
But there is one aspect of Armstrong's confessional with Oprah that did intrigue me and it's particularly useful for anyone who deals with the media. It's the danger of Yes/No questions.
You might remember Oprah's rapid-fire series of Yes/No questions at the start of the interview.
It was a clever and obvious tactic that interviewers often use to get to the truth quickly, and Oprah certainly got answers to questions the whole world was asking.
Oprah: "Yes or no. Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?"
Oprah: "Yes or no. Was one of those banned substances EPO?"
Oprah: "Did you ever blood dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?"
Oprah: "Did you ever use other banned substances like testosterone or human growth hormone?"
Oprah: "Yes or no. In all seven of your Tour de France victories did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?"
No doubt Armstrong's willingness to provide simple Yes or No responses was all part of a carefully crafted package of admissions designed to cleanse the soul and minimise the legal repercussions of his confessions.
Say too much, and he might have opened the door to widespread criminal prosecution.
Now, most of us will probably never have to come clean in a media interview quite like Armstrong did. But you still might find yourself on the end of a barrage of Yes/No questions from a reporter.
If that interview taught us nothing else, it's that Yes/No questions can be great for a reporter, but potentially damaging for anyone in the interview hot seat.
No matter whether you’re a professional athlete, a business executive or a PR professional, you really should think twice before giving a Yes, No or even 'Maybe' response. And here's why.
Yes/No responses usually create a type of information vacuum with absolutely no context or explanation around them. Reporters - including the public - are left to join the dots themselves in understanding the why or how, and they don't always get it right.
Yes/No questions can be traps because they block the interviewee in a corner and force them to give a direct response. That often results in either a denial or a damaging confirmation, which results in an even more damaging quote or headline.
Rather than feeling cornered, you could instead say something like: “It’s really not that clear cut”, “It’s just not that simple” or even "Quite the opposite", before reframing the question that has been put to you.
If you don’t preface why you can’t or won’t directly answer a Yes or No question, a reporter is likely to keep dragging you back, and you'll stay on that treadmill until you do.
Even when you respond with a ‘No’, a reporter can still paraphrase you because you have denied whatever it is they have put to you.
When Armstrong did open up in the the Oprah interview, more often than not he engaged in a string of damaging denials that planted the wrong image in the minds of viewers.
He said: "There was no positive test. There was no paying off of the lab. There was no secret meeting with the lab director. I'm no fan of the UCI, but that did not happen."
Bear in mind though, that there are often times when a reporter just needs a Yes or No clarification on something you’ve said or done for the sake of accuracy, and that can be fine. But if you’re in the interview hot seat you need to consider whether a simple Yes or No response really paints the full picture.
In truth, Yes/No questions belong in a court room or a confessional rather than a media interview.
I suppose that's why Oprah is considered something of a 'High Priestess', forever taking confessions from disgraced superstars who've got nothing to lose.
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