Taking Tips from the Presidential Debates

Corporate and nonprofit executives can learn a lot about communicating externally by watching the presidential debates next week and in the weeks ahead. If the past is any indication, the two candidates will have spent hours being coached on how best to answer questions in a succinct and compelling fashion that will connect with voters. While much will be made of their zingers, others can learn more by watching how the candidates handle tough topics and unexpected questions.

Participants in our media training sessions are often most concerned about the prospect of an unexpected question or one for which they don’t have an answer. That’s understandable. Gary Johnson, Libertarian presidential candidate, faced significant criticism for his lack of foreign policy knowledge when he responded to an MSNBC commentator’s question about what do about the war-torn Syrian city, Aleppo, with the question, “What is Aleppo?” His question quickly became a trending topic on Twitter.

Corporate and nonprofit executives aren’t expected to know the answers to every question. But no one wants a gaffe that will become a trending Twitter topic. Here are some tools you can use to respond to these unexpected questions during a media interview. Watch how the presidential candidates use these and more during the debates.

  1. Tell them what you do know: While the presidential candidates likely will be well-prepared for every topic, you may not be. When you hear a question, assess what the topic is and what you do know about that topic. For instance, if the question is about something you don’t know about the economy, then think about what you do know about the current or future state of the economy. Then use some of the following phrases to move past the unexpected question and address what you do know.

           “It’s unclear, but we do know….”

            “What I do know is….”

            “Are you aware that….?”

            Or discuss trends, if you don’t know the actual numbers, i.e. “We do know the numbers are trending upward (or downward or are basically unchanged)…”


  1. Pivot to your talking point: You’re likely to see this several times in the presidential debates because candidates do this frequently. For instance, questioners often ask for very specific answers or solutions to what may be intractable problems with no simple solutions. The candidates will often touch on the topic and then move to their talking points on the topics. While this is frustrating for questioners, it gives the candidates the opportunity to re-emphasize what they can say about the topic and informs the public on their positions.


  1. Deflect off-base questions: Sometimes interviewers get so far off base or speculative, that the interviewee can’t responsibly respond. In a print interview, letting the reporter know this really isn’t your subject area or something that you can address will work. On a live broadcast interview, such responses may come across as condescending. Using the following language may easily steer the conversation back on track:


         “The real issue is….”

         “What really matters is….”

         “The more interesting question is…”

         “I think what you’re really asking is…”

         “That speaks to be bigger point, which is…”

What other tactics have you used to handle an unexpected or off-track question?

Similar Posts