How To: Dodge a Question

Sit in the hot seat with style.

By Matthew Hutson, published on January 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Politicians are like stage magicians, using verbal sleight of hand to redirect inconvenient questions toward preferred talking points. And people rarely notice, let alone mind.

In a study at Harvard Business School by Todd Rogers and Michael Norton, people watched or listened to snippets of political debates and rated how much they liked and trusted the speakers. Going way off-topic (from terrorism to healthcare) lost the politicians points, but straying to a similar issue (from the illegal drug problem to healthcare) did not. In fact, subtle segues often made listeners forget the question. What's more, people preferred speakers who digressed slightly and spoke smoothly over those who answered directly but let off ums and uhs. Style over substance.

Kevin Daley, founder of Communispond, Inc., offers several tips on how to evade unwanted inquiries:

  • Prepare

    "People can predict most questions that will be asked of them if they are in the hot seat," Daley says. Write them down and rehearse your answers.

  • Restate, rephrase

    Repeating the question buys you a few seconds of thought. Rephrasing it lets you add your own spin.

  • Go abstract

    "Expand the subject under discussion, then respond to something a little bit adjacent to that which is putting you on the spot," Daley says.

  • Turn away

    Don't direct your answer at the questioner in your audience or he might trap you with a follow-up.

  • Don't Be Boring

    "If the speaker is interesting, the audience will forgive him almost anything."