How I Managed One Totally Unexpected Question
Ten years ago, I managed the media relations department for an environmental nonprofit called Conservation International. In that role, I was frequently interviewed by the media.
One morning, I was scheduled to be interviewed by a radio talk show host in the Midwest. I dialed in a few minutes early and was placed on hold so I could hear the live programming. The station was in a commercial break, and came out of the break with a “bumper,” or by playing a few seconds of a pop song.
As the music continued playing at a low volume, I heard the phone line click over to me as the host started talking and introducing me. When his introduction finished, he started with his first question:
“Brad, how old are you?”
I was in my late 20s at the time, and was immediately afraid that I would lose credibility in the host’s eyes (and the audience’s) if I admitted I was a youthful 29-years-old.
His question threw me. I stumbled for a second. But luckily, I had the presence of mind to ask him why he was asking.
“Because that’s a great old song, and I was curious if you knew it,” he replied.
“Oh, sure,” I said. “That’s Rare Earth’s ‘Get Ready.’” How in the world did a 29-year-old who grew up in the 80s know that? Because I happened to pay for many of my college expenses by making my way through school as a mobile disc jockey — and it so happens that I played that song at many a party.
The D.J. didn’t ask about my age again. Crisis averted.
But what should you do if you find yourself similarly tongue tied? Remember that you don’t have to answer every question just because it’s asked. In my case, I asked why he was curious, which allowed me to learn that his question wasn’t intended to undermine my credibility (as I feared), but rather to ask me about a pop song he loved. You can certainly ask for clarification in a similar manner before answering questions that come from left field.
And if he was asking me the question to undermine me? I could have just laughed and deflected by saying, “You know, I’m old enough to know not to answer questions about my age.”
Don’t remember Rare Earth’s “Get Ready?” Take a few minutes and enjoy!
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Love that line: “I’m old enough to know not to answer questions about my age.” I may have to use that at some point 😉
People should know better than to ask certain types of questions (e.g. “How old are you?” “When are you due?” “When will you and your spouse have a child?”). Sadly, many don’t. Those types of deflections are better than “You’re a rude one, aren’t you?” 🙂
Great entry, Brad! Excellent advice to remember you can always ask questions in an interview, clarifying the question or just giving yourself a moment to digest and formulate a response.
The one additional thought I had reading the entry was that, just as in a job interview, a lot of the preparation to avoid the tailspin question is mental. We all know our fears and insecurities as we head into interviews. The key is to be aware of those sensitive points so that we can remain alert to not slipping into them (i.e. getting defensive, which poisons an interview). So a lot of being ready for left-field questions involves those thoughts you have when you take that deep breath and look in the mirror before you begin. It is then you remind yourself you have value to share and commit to yourself that you won’t be sidetracked. Doing so silences those negative internal voices, at least for a bit ;).
Thanks! You’ve put your finger on a future post I’ve been planning called “Managing the Imposter Syndrome.” It’s a recurring theme in my life, and I plan to discuss it on the blog soon.
Thanks for commenting,