Handling the question that mustn’t be answered


by Peter Watts

Have you stopped beating your wife?

Where do you go with a question like that? Only two equally damning answers appear open, but you would be cursed by a yes or condemned by a no.

Sometimes as presenters, questions are put to us such as the famous “have you stopped beating your wife” example, that are based on false prepositions. Whether intentional or innocent, they are unanswerable, and indeed, must not be answered. If you do, then you confirm the preposition, and the trap snaps shut around your ankles.

The first discipline when dealing with false propositions is to identify them. Pause before you answer questions. From a stage-craft perspective it makes your answer appear considered. From a thinking-time perspective it gives the opportunity to consider the question and check that it’s basis is factually correct.

Listen-before-you-leap. Expose questions that you shouldn’t answer. For example, watch a political interview to observe masters at work:

“How do you explain the failure of your administration’s economic policy?”

If the interviewee attempts to answer this question, they create a talking point around perceived economic failure. Therefore the legitimate route, is refute:

“I don’t agree with the proposition of your question. Amongst the many economic achievements we have produced are………”

The interviewee is now telling the audience what they, the interviewee, wants to say. They effectively answer their own made-up question. Is this fair? Absolutely. It’s not just fair, it’s essential.

Media Consultant Ann Wright, from Rough House Media, comments that the same techniques are equally important in both presentations, and during media interviews:

“Aim not to repeat the question as you refute the answer. If you reply with ‘I don’t accept that I have ever beaten my wife / I have never beaten my wife’ then this will re-enforce the question in the listeners mind. They could miss the fact that you are denying it.”

Like strategic chess-moves, false preposition questions are placed to trip us into check-mate. It’s fully justified to respond by pivoting back out of the trap.

Ann Wright of RoughHouse Media can be followed on Twitter at @roughhouse01

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