Boris Johnson: how not to handle tricky questions

Boris Johnson’s performance in Tuesday’s Conservative Leadership debate offered another glimpse into his tendency to dodge questions of substance. And it’s a reminder that it’s an absolute no-no to mimic the ‘smoke and mirrors approach’ in any serious business meeting or event with clients or investors.

Of course, when we coach clients to go on TV we encourage them to bridge away firmly and quickly from a difficult question (for example, ‘is X fit to be prime minister/president?’). But first, they should always respond to the question as directly as possible.

In business meetings we recommend clients take a more considered approach. Without the time constraints or public exposure of TV, they are able to address a negative question more fully before steering around in time to balance out the response with some positives. 

For example, responding to an investor asking about a company’s apparent lack of progress in gender pay equality, take time to acknowledge what the public statistics say, before going on to talk about initiatives in progress internally that are less well known outside. It’s worth bearing in mind that Johnson was appearing in a long debate, not a short interview. 

“I really admire Boris’ ability to answer the question,” lamented fellow contender Jeremy Hunt when asked what quality he most admired in his opponent. “You ask him a question, he puts a smile on your face and you forget what the question was.” Only you don’t, really.