Maybe you watched the “60 Minutes” interview with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (March 11, 2017).

If not, chances are you either saw video or read excerpts of places where she stumbled. And that her performance was called “messy” or “rocky” or a “train wreck.”

DeVos’ response? That she was “misunderstood” and that the program editors chose not to use all the facts she shared.

The truth is, we can all make the same mistakes in Q&As that she did. And we can look just as bad.

One thing’s for sure. We love to see people with power get publicly tweaked. The bad news is that we can sometimes be that person for others.

Maybe it’s a board meeting. A team meeting. An employee performance review. A new business presentation. People use Q&A not just to get information. They want to test us. To see how we perform under pressure. To see if we’re telling the truth.

What We Can Learn from Betsy

Here are three ideas that would have helped her fare better.

Know Your Nervous Ticks. We all have them. For DeVos, this is smiling – too big and too long. The glassy stare in her eyes was incongruous with the warmth we associate with a smile. We judge this stuff. “She must be unprepared,” we think, “or in over her head.”

I once knew a CFO who smacked hips lips between sentences. (It was painful to listen to his conference calls!) And a CEO who would put his right hand to his throat and give an exaggerated swallow.

Others fall back on what I call “verbal clutter.” They “um” and “uh.” They repeat the same phrase – such as the college professor I had who once said, “in terms of” 53 times in a 60-minute class. (Yup: I made hatch marks each time in my notes.)

Don’t think you have any? Do three things to find out:

  1. Ask people you trust to tell you the truth about what they see.
  2. Audio record yourself: listening not just for the words but your tone of voice and pace of speech.
  3. Video record yourself: turn off the sound and see what your body is doing – particularly any repetitive or annoying movements.

Be able to support your point of view (POV). It was clear that DeVos believes parents and students should have a choice of schooling – charter and private versus just public – and that funding ought to follow the student. Where things fell apart was that the interviewer, Leslie Stahl, cited statistics that DeVos either hadn’t heard or didn’t plan a response to. That meant she fell back on repeating her POV rather than addressing the issue being raised. (And her big smile didn’t help.)

Examine the different questions about or objections to your POV before you get into the conversation. Think about, and practice, how you’ll respond to difficult questions – particularly the ones that have negative wording or impugn your character.

You don’t want to memorize this stuff (it was clear that DeVos had done this with her POV). You want to have your supporting points so engrained that they come to mind easily when you’re put on the spot.

Take a strategic approach to Q&A. DeVos did what many of us do: gave the questioner more power than she kept for herself. As Stahl interrupted and expressed disbelief, DeVos was reduced to just reacting rather than sharing her ideas:

Stahl: “Have you seen the really bad schools?”

DeVos: “I have not intentionally visited the schools that are underperforming.”

Stahl: “Maybe you should.”

DeVos: “Maybe I should, yes.”

Understand that any Q&A should be a conversation. Use bridging, listing, hooking flagging and summarizing not only to answer the question being asked, but to provide additional, useful information. See this article on how to do that.

I believe that if you leave a camera on any of us long enough, we will say or do something stupid. If we want to avoid the most egregious faux pas, let’s learn from the mistakes that we – and others like DeVos – make. That way, when the spotlight is on us, it won’t feel like a searchlight, illuminating our shortcomings.

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