How To Ask A Tough Question

Let’s say you’re an interviewer who wants to ask a guest about an uncomfortable topic. What’s the best way to ask your question?

I wondered about that after watching an incredibly awkward exchange earlier this week between CNN Host Ashleigh Banfield and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).

As you might remember, Mr. Vitter was caught up in a prostitution scandal in 2007, and Ms. Banfield was interested in what advice he would offer Newt Gingrich, who is weathering his own adultery scandal. Here’s the exchange:

Sen. David Vitter: “I don’t, but go ahead.”

Ms. Banfield: “Newt Gingrich, okay, so here I go. Newt Gingrich has been suffering some heat over his cheating on his first wife, cheating on his second wife with his third wife. And you have also suffered heat in your political career as well. Back in 2007 admitting to having made some calls to an alleged prostitution operation. You did very well when you ran for re-election in 2010. In fact, as I look at the numbers, I think you trounced your opponent by what, 19 points or something like that? You seemed to manage that baggage very well. I want you to weigh in on Newt Gingrich’s baggage and handling that baggage, what it is like for a politician who has some serious baggage trying to be elected.”

Ms. Banfield is clearly uncomfortable asking the question, and I can’t help wondering whether being overly-apologetic and indirect made it worse. Contrast her question with Bob Costas’ direct questioning of alleged child rapist Jerry Sandusky from back in November:

“Are you a pedophile?”

“Are you sexually attracted to young boys, to underage boys?”

In reviewing the two clips, it’s striking that Ms. Banfield used a whopping 192 words to ask her question, while Mr. Costas used just four for one question and ten for another.

It’s not a coincidence that Mr. Costas’ economy of words worked better. Uncomfortable topics are usually better served by direct, unsparing questions that don’t linger unnecessarily over the cringeworthy material.

Like a nurse administering a shot, quick precision is better than slow equivocation.

If I was in Ms. Banfield’s shoes, I might have tried the question this way:

“Senator, after your own prostitution scandal in 2007, you won re-election by 19 points. How were you able to do that, and how do you think Newt Gingrich can use the same lessons to overcome voters’ concerns about his adultery?”

That version is 79 percent shorter than the one Ms. Banfield used – and its surgical precision helps demonstrate that when asking a tough question, shorter and more direct is usually better.

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