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How you can answer tough questions – like Mark McCombe from BlackRock

How you can answer tough questions like Mark McCombe – Chairman (Asia-Pacific) BlackRock

If you’d like to feel more at ease when answering tough questions – either in meetings and face-to-face encounters OR in media interviews – you can learn a lot from Mark McCombe.

Mark McCombe Managing Asia

I saw Mr McCombe “in action” as I was flying from Australia to Singapore to help a client.  Mark McCombe was being interviewed by Christine Tan on CNBC’s Managing Asia. On the flight I had time to carefully study his media performance. I was so impressed – I watched his interview twice!

Managing Asia Christine Tan

The more I listened to Mr McCombe – the more impressed I was with his  poise and calm under pressure  – the pressure of the interview.

Journalists often have to be seen to be asking the tough questions – and Christine Tan seems to be a seasoned and tenacious interviewer. (I’ll have to watch her more often! )

She uses a lot of advanced and more experienced interviewer techniques.  She follows up and presses talent for more definite answers.

She pounces on a talent’s words with more probing questions. She obviously listens intently to answers rather than just reading the next question on her list. Watching the interview was like watching two  top professional tennis players.

I admired the skills of both Tan and McCombe.

TB notes on Singapore flight

I’m a former TV journalist who now trains CEOs how to work with the media – sort of a “poacher turned gamekeeper”.

helping businesses avoid cross-cultural misunderstanding - feeling a bit crook (maybe it's Monday-itis!)

In this post – I’ll discuss some interviewer techniques AND appropriate, effective  “counter measures” for corporate spokespeople

Here’s what Mark McCombe did well and what you can apply too

1. It appears to me that Mark McCombe has been intensively trained in how to work with the media. Either that – or he is a gifted “natural”.

The first clue was:

During the interview Mr. McCombe uses the common “politician” technique –  He asks and answers his own questions:

He’d  give a short answer to a question asked – then ask his own question – then give a longer answer to his own question.

e.g. So what does that mean?  He then pivots to what the main message wants to say.

2. When Christine Tan tries to pin him down several times– he used a technique I call “opening the umbrella”. Think of how you open an umbrella out wide to protect you from the rain. If an interviewer tries to ask for specifics – you politely “go wide”.

Tan often asks McCombe specific questions about business dealings – trying to get him to comment about dealings with a specific organisation.

Time and time again, McCombe “opens the umbrella”: he goes wide.

I’m paraphrasing the questions here – but the answers are the real ones.

Q: Is one of your influential contacts X company?

A: “We have lots of contacts”

Q: Why are you investing a lot of energy into developing your relationship with X company

A: “We have a number of relationships”

(A classic non-definite “politician’s answer” is:

Q: Are you planning to do Y?

A: We are considering a number of options?

Q: Is that one of he options?

A: that’s one of several options we are considering)

3. Later in the interview, Christine Tan uses the interviewer “trick”:  trying to  clarify and get a more precise answer to a broad/vaguer answer with the reponse  “So that’s a NO?” .

Mr. McCombe doesn’t let the NO suggestion stand as the last impression of that answer.

He responds:  You can interpret that however you want to interpret it. 

4. Mr McCombe is also careful and deliberate with his  choice of words – instead of saying through the good times and the bad times –  he said through the good times and the less good times. This may sound awkward – but it is less negative and more diplomatic.

You should not repeat negative words used by an interviewer. Develop reflexes to “flip to the positive”.

For example: (not from the McCombe interview)

Q: You must regret the mistakes (negative words regret and mistake)

A:  We are grateful for the important lessons learned.

Q: What was the main failure in your system?

A: We’ve made our system more robust by doing X, Y and Z.

There are so many techniques – like controlling the TENSE you focus on. Instead of  talking about PAST mistakes – you focus on PRESENT or FUTURE actions you are or will be taking to improve a situation.

Anyway, back to Mark McCombe…

From my experience in training CEOs to work with the media, I think Mark McCombe is very verbally skilled.

Either he has extremely good reflexes OR he prepares – he has thought about possibly challenging questions and prepared and practised responses. 

My main suggestion for improvement is to watch the body language. Even though in the interview I didn’t hear him say anything wrong or lose his cool – you could see from the body language (shifting in his seat) the topics of discussion he was less comfortable with.

Present a calm face AND a poised posterior

In training we help executives present a calm face AND a poised posterior! And it come through practice – just as soldiers are exposed to the sounds and sensations of being “under fire”.  We can even simulate the discomforting crush of a media scrum complete with lights and microphones being thrust into your face and multiple questions being fired from many directions.

I love that old military saying – The more you sweat in training – the less you bleed in battle.

War Correspondent training

I know I can be a bit gung ho! – but this training before your media encounter WILL help you perform better – and in business interviews the stakes are high!

By preparing for important media interviews with mock interviews you can:

  1. video yourself facing tough questions
  2. review the video to be aware of areas where you look less comfortable
  3. when you hear questions that make you feel uncomfortable (on the inside) you can practise remaining looking comfortable in your seat. (no crossed arms or squirming posterior!)

Train your tell-tale eyes

You also need to be aware of uncomfortable darting eyes. Once again in a mock interview you can practise answering tough questions and look back at how your eyes react to challenging questions.

The tougher the question, the more you keep your eyes calmly focussed – looking at the interviewer – not  have your eyes darting around searching for an answer. By preparing – you can already have answers to tough questions. You just have to make it look like the answer is not “too prepared”.

You know the main point/s you want to say – but you deliver your message in a natural, conversational style. You don’t want to sound like you are regurgitating  a scripted answer.

…and watch your nodding

Also, it’s natural to nod your head – to show you are listening to an interviewer asking you questions.

Media-savvy CEOs are aware that the nod of “I hear you/I’m listening to you” could be mistaken for “I agree with what you are saying” – especially if the interviewing is saying something negative.

Watch the professionals in action in business news interviews – they control the urge to nod in agreement – unless they are nodding to something positive.

I know there are so many things you have to be aware of in interviews – that’s why it’s important to prepare and do “mock” interviews – and video and review your performance.  Never just wing it. Never get complacent and think: I did a good interview last month – this one will be fine too. 


If you have an important presentation of media interview coming up – I’d be delighted to help you prepare.

I regularly help CEOs and other corporate spokespeople design and practise delivering their important messages.

I am based in Brisbane, Australia and travel frequently to help clients in Sydney and Singapore. The best contact is my mobile: Australia 0409 821 186


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