an interview for television

Give the Answer You Want, Not the One They Want: Use Block and Bridge (B2) to Make the Most of Your Interviews

IT’S NO SECRET that many dread the unknown of reporters’ questions. The reason? Even the friendliest reporters are doing their job when they play devil’s advocate. But the true horror lies in hostile reporters trying to trip up their “guests” with the sole goal of shaming them in a never-to-forget clip.

In response, people have tried some interesting media strategies.

Take Speaker of the House John Boehner, for example. In mid-May, the Speaker found himself on the receiving end of what he considered to be a less-than-ideal question. When asked whether Amtrak was well-funded enough in the lead-up to the crash of Amtrak 188, his response began with: “Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?”

The result? The media, even the usually friendly Daily Caller, covered the derisive response more than the content of his answer.

Another “strategy,” not quite as extreme, was instituted by Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton this past fall. After being sidelined in Game 1 of the NFL season, he decided not to answer any questions on the matter and focused only on the next week’s game. He said repeatedly (six times) that: “My main focus right now is focusing on the Detroit Lions.”

The result? A 24-hour news cycle on ESPN detailing why he didn’t answer the questions posed.

The lesson to learn is when you avoid and/or insult the media and their questions that becomes the story. And that isn’t the narrative you want to tell.

The good news is that there is a strategy that works. It’s called the “Block and Bridge” (or what I refer to as B2), and it is the true art of interviewing well.

Block and Bridge (B2)

To break it down, blocking and bridging is the process of briefly acknowledging a question but quickly pivoting to the talking point you want to give. It’s the tool necessary to avoid the accusation of dodging.

This does mean that prior to an interview you must determine what talking points are best. If you view your three to five minutes as a typical Q&A or as a battle of wits with the reporter, you’ll spend your time trying to convince the host rather than the audience. And if the quality of the interview is based on the quality of the questions you’ll be on the short end of the stick the majority of the time.

So how does it work? Whenever you are asked a question you want to block—whether it’s hostile, off-topic, or just not that great—you first start by briefly acknowledging the question. Then you bridge to the talking point you want to discuss. You should be able to do this in 10 seconds.

Here’s an example on the topic of school choice:

Q: “If you are taking money away from traditional public schools, won’t that hurt them further?”

B2: “What we find is that all schools improve, including traditional public schools, when funding follows the child instead of a school building. Just look at .”

Instead of devoting your entire answer to talk of traditional public schools, you briefly acknowledge the question (in a positive way) and then spend the majority of your time giving the answer you want to give.

This does mean you should prepare for questions in advance to develop your block and bridge.

You may be thinking: “How do I know what they’ll ask?” Good news: The toughest questions (usually when the host plays devil’s advocate) are recycled. For each topic, there are generally three to five tough questions. And, if you are ever caught off guard, just add that new question to the list and develop a block and bridge response!

Avoid These Mistakes

Even if you have prepared, keep in mind the following pitfalls and how to avoid each.

Say What You Are Instead of What You Are Not. Be careful of negative accusations. It is always best to say what you are instead of what you are not.

History shows that not only do people tend to think you are guilty of what you’re saying you’re not, but it also becomes the headline. Here are some memorable “I’m nots”:

● “I’m not a liar.”
● “I’m not a crook.”
● “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
● “I’m not a witch.”

We can learn from Chris Christie on this one. In January 2014, the New Jersey Governor held a two-hour press conference explaining his involvement—or lack thereof—in the “Bridgegate” scandal. While the governor’s focus was to emphasize that he knew nothing about the scandal, questions turned towards the governor’s temperament—as they often do. Reporter’s asked him: “Are you a bully?”

By most accounts, Christie handled the press conference well, but his response to this one question became the focus of the USA Today Weekend front-page story. The headline read: “I am not a bully.”

In addition to the public assuming you are guilty of what you’re saying you aren’t, the quote is memorable and will determine your public fate. The quote becomes the story.

You can’t avoid recognizing accusations, but you can control your response. The best way to handle a negative accusation? Craft it into something true and positive about you, your organization, or your position. While you can’t change the question, you have the power to change the narrative.

If Governor Christie had rephrased the negative question and responded with, “I treat all my staff with respect,” the front-page story may have focused on the actual scandal, which was “Bridgegate.”

Meet Emotion with Emotion Before You Get to Policy. Often, the toughest questions involve a victim and therefore a lot of emotion. The mistake many people make is to ignore the victim and go straight to a talking point on policy. Sure, that policy will most likely help the victim in question. But tell the audience. Even though you know how a specific talking point on policy helps people, you have to connect the dots for the audience. If you don’t acknowledge their victim, it sounds like you don’t care.

Here’s an example concerning guns:

Q: “But what about all those kids who were killed in Sandy Hook? Guns kill people.”

B2: “What happened at Sandy Hook was a horrible tragedy, but the sad reality is that even if this piece of legislation had been in place it wouldn’t have prevented what happened. That’s why we need to focus on .”

While you will talk about the piece of legislation, you met the emotion of the question first. People may disagree with you, but at least you sound like you care.

Another tricky topic is religious liberty. We saw the storm most heavily in Indiana this past March when a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed. Here was a typical question in the news, and a suggestion on how to meet emotion with emotion:

Q: “Yes or no, if a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?”

B2: “This law doesn’t address that. What this does is allow any person who claims discrimination to have their day in court. It eliminates your opinion and my opinion from the equation, and puts the decision in the hands of our judicial system so that everyone’s rights are protected.”

If asked about religious liberty just B2 it!

While we can’t dictate the questions asked, we can change the direction of those questions—and, therefore, the narrative. Remember: No one can put words in your mouth. If you focus on saying what you are and how your position helps people, you’ll avoid the John Boehner and Cam Newton method of dealing with the press because insulting the media and/or ignoring their questions is never a winning strategy. Instead, incorporate the winning strategy of block and bridge.

In summary, just B2 it!

Ms. Hallberg is President of District Media Group, a company that teaches interview skills to public policy professionals.