Nick's Notes

Any Questions?

I wake up to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 most mornings. My internet radio gently increases volume to reach the desired point and it’s a pretty painless experience. But nothing can prepare me for the hectoring approach many of the presenters adopt.

The Today programme has come in for criticism recently. It appears listeners are leaving in quite significant numbers following the appointment of Sarah Sands as Editor about a year ago. She was Editor of the Evening Standard immediately before, and some 10 years ago Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, so on paper has the right qualities for Today. She has changed the agenda; more arts stories, more “women’s stories” and she’s introduced the daily puzzle, which amusingly, John Humphreys always claims the answer is 11 whilst demonstrating an air of bemusement. I guess he’ll be right once in a while. The arts coverage gives time to Jim Naughtie to do an occasional in depth piece, often about music or books. He stepped down from the programme a few years ago, but he has a great voice for radio and I miss him, despite him appearing to be an “old leftie”.

Overall, I prefer a harder news agenda, but summer isn’t the right time to judge that, as the “silly season” is still in full flow. My biggest gripe with the programme is the manner of questioning adopted by a number of the too many presenters – mainly the women who are on the programme at present I think. They won’t give the interviewee time to answer the question – jumping in in quite an aggressive fashion and adopting a hectoring tone as the interview proceeds. Some of this may be due to the time pressure – an interviewee may wish to stonewall when there is only a short slot allocated – but the Editor should reduce the number of items so that each can actually be dealt with in a sensible manner. Regardless, shouting “let him/her answer” at the radio around 6:30 in the morning is not such a good way to wake up.

I don’t believe this approach elicits any information about the subject in question. Funnily enough, despite his reputation, I don’t think John Humphreys adopts this approach. He’s often much better briefed and asks incisive questions, rarely betraying his own politics, but he is undoubtedly very tough especially when interviewees don’t appear to be on top of their brief.

All politicians and most business people have had extensive media training these days and this results in an arms race, where interviewers and interviewees try to get the better of each other. Interviewees stick to their three points regardless of the question, and politicians in particular come up with a form of words which might appear to be hiding something, so precise is the intended meaning of the words they use. Many interviewers seem to adopt the Jeremy Paxman approach he summed up as thinking “why is this bastard lying to me”, so are deeply suspicious of any answer they manage to get.

Other questioning styles do exist – but need a good knowledge of the subject and no inbuilt bias and are rarely used. David Frost was good at asking apparently very gentle questions that elicited a great deal of information because they seemed unthreatening. Andrew Marr adopts a similar approach on his Sunday politics programme

We all know that the way you ask questions affects the answer you get. Asking questions because you want to know the answer, rather than because you wish to expose the perceived weakness in the other person’s case is a great way to get good answers. You have to be open to listening, understanding and empathising to do that well. Political interviews are rarely positioned that way, arts interviews on the Today programme more so. Nick Robinson, the ex-political editor of the BBC, now on the Today programme has an encyclopaedic knowledge of UK politics, and he can elicit interesting answers, because he can ask good questions.

So in the business world, do you get and give good answers to questions? Do you adopt a different tone in different circumstances? Do you treat junior and senior people differently? Do you get the best from people you are questioning, or just encourage them to obfuscate?

Good questioning technique is a key part of the emotional intelligence needed to be a good leader. From the many meetings I experience I must say the ability to ask good questions is not equally distributed amongst senior executives any more than it is amongst journalists.

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