Top 10 ways to handle tough questions

Do you ever freeze up when you get tough questions from your manager, or just start spitting out words and hope they eventually end up making sense? Once a month  Cisco’s CEO John Chambers gets face to face with employees who have birthdays in that month, and takes questions in a town hall format. I always get to ask a question because I always sit in the front row (a subject for another blog.)

This morning I asked him, “John (I call him John), you have led the company through great times and challenging times, and you always seem so poised and confident with the media. What’s your secret to handling tough questions from aggressive reporters?”

He put a thumb on his chin and paused, and said “That’s what I do first. I pause and think.” He went on to describe exactly how he handles press interviews and I think it’s worthy advice:

  1. Listen carefully to the question.
  2. Listen to the question behind the question (What are they really getting at?)
  3. Pause and think about the objective of your answer.
  4. Make eye contact, use their name and connect with them emotionally.
  5. Give crisp answers.
  6. Avoid providing afterthoughts because they can get you in trouble with follow up questions.
  7. Be transparent. Better to reveal the truth your way before others do it less elegantly.
  8. Get your planned data points out within the first three questions.
  9. If they ask you an unfair question, call them on it in a nice way.
  10. If they burn you with an inaccurate or out of context report, they don’t get a second chance. Set an example of strength.

So whether you get interviewed on camera or blind-sided at the water cooler, there is an art, and a science, to answering tough questions. Keep an eye out for John when he’s on TV. He’s an excellent communication role model.

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2 Comments on “Top 10 ways to handle tough questions”


  1. This is a great post, David. Mr. Chambers (I don’t know him to call him John like you do) is correct on a lot of points. Since I’ve worn both hats – one as TV reporter and two as a publicist, I can tell you his points are pretty straight forward on all counts.

    One thing I’d like to add/share from both sides here is that, if you are in a crisis communications situation, it really is truly best to handle it with thoroughness, grace and complete open book honesty.

    If you don’t present all the facts and all the ugly dirty laundry upfront, a reporter (especially tabloids) will end up digging hard to find the real dirt anyway.

    And if you present all the facts and ugly dirty laundry upfront and be honest, you’ve actually prevented a domino effect and usually end a press conference when it ends, instead of having it continue on and spiral out of control for days.

    What this accomplishes is, a company establishes an open and honest policy of credibility. And a reporter won’t feel like stuff is swept under the rug. And everyone leaves the situation with all their needs met and it actually builds a good rapport on solid footing for the future.

    • davidgoad Says:

      Yay! Validation from one of the best!! (By the way if anyone is looking for a truly creative PR professional, Stacey K is incredibly good. Message me if your company needs help and I will tell you more.)


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