When Blathering and Dodging the Question Actually Pays Off

Last Updated May 18, 2011 2:46 PM EDT

For salespeople, the ability to say the words, "I don't know," is an important part of being seen as credible. But politicians and CEOs seem not to have learned this--who hasn't watched a debate and wondered why the moderator's questions remain unanswered?

Todd Rogers, of the Analyst Institute, and Michael Norton, of Harvard Business School, have just completed a study that asks audience members to rate speakers on their honestly, trustworthiness, capability, and likeability after they'd seen them:

  • answer a question they'd been asked
  • dodge a question they'd been asked, and answer a similar one instead
  • answer a question, but stumble a bit when doing so
  • avoid a question, even though the audience was being reminded of the question's exact wording
Their findings:
  • You don't have to answer the question, but it's good to come close. Speakers who were asked about drug legalization but gave a general reply about healthcare suffered few ramifications. They were deemed just as likeable as speakers who actually answered the question. In this situation, a large portion of the audience members couldn't remember the original question anyways. Speakers who didn't come close to answering the question about drugs, and instead started speaking about the war on terror, got significantly more negative ratings.
  • It's better to dodge than to fumble. Speakers who fluently answered a question that was similar-but not identical-to the one they were really asked were ranked more highly than speakers who actually answered the question but who were inarticulate, with multiple "ums" and "ahs" sprinkled throughout their answer.
  • If the audience is reminded of the question, don't dodge. This might not seem like a 'real world' possibility, but the authors point out that in some televised political debates, the question that the candidate has been asked now appears on the bottom of the television screen as the candidate is answering -or fumbling-the question. In that case, viewers are much more likely to notice that someone is dodging a question, and, it seems, more likely to care.
Does it bother you when politicians--or CEOs--dodge questions, as long as they give an answer that's at least somewhat related to what they were asked?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.