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Personal questions of business leaders in TV interviews: If you can't stand the heat, learn to cook

Blog post   •   Feb 28, 2018 08:54 +08

A whole industry has been built on asking VIPs personal questions. Some have benefitted from the profile, others have suffered under the glare. How can business leaders walk this tightrope?

There were two controversies surrounding public figures being asked personal questions on camera this week, which provide hugely valuable lessons for senior business leaders.

First, NBC's Peter Alexander asked Ivanka Trump about the sexual harassment allegations against her father, President Donald Trump.

And then Charles Wooley of Australia's 60 Minutes current affairs television program asked New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern what date she conceived the child she is pregnant with.

We can debate whether this line of questioning is appropriate. Ivanka Trump didn't think so, and while Ardern laughed it off, the face she pulled suggests she didn't think so either (this article makes a nuanced case for and against).

But it is a natural consequence that audiences want to know more about the person behind the headlines. As a radio and later TV presenter, I found asking personal questions disarmed guests who were just out to drive their corporate messaging, and often provided insights into what motivated and drove people. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, or learn to cook. Like this:

  1. Get used to it – Whether you like it or not, emerging business leaders face increasing personal scrutiny as their public persona grows. Even intensely private business leaders such as Tony Tan Caktiong, the founder of Jollibee Foods Corporation (who summarily dismissed my invitation for an on-camera CNBC interview at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards around 15 years ago) knows how to leverage private insights (examples here and here).
  2. Conduct a social media audit – What can strangers gleen from your social channels? Take stock of what a reporter might find out about you through your Facebook posts, tweets or Instagram photos. It is good practise anyway to avoid uploading embarrassing photos or posting compromising comments. Never publish anything you wouldn't want your boss, the president, your spouse, or a reporter to read. Set up a Google News Alert with your name as the search term.
  3. Tell your personal story – Far from avoiding any and all personal questions, develop a narrative about how you started out, and the mentors and opportunities that shaped your career. If you're not leading the conversation, you will be asked to react to it when something is inevitably published about you. The more you try to shun the limelight, the greater the interest will be.
  4. Keep it in perspective – There are lots of grey areas. For example, questions about how your passion for sports in secondary school shaped your thinking as a business leader are probably quite harmless. Asking what mischief you got up to in the dressing room isn't. Know the difference, and don't freak out if it's the former.
  5. Don't storm out of an interview - Fastest way to amplify the clip and make it go viral.

That said, you can't reasonably be expected to lay bare all your secrets. You need to learn to manage the situation if the questions go too far. #askmehow

What are your thoughts? Add a comment below.

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