Thursday, July 9, 2009

PBTAS: Sweet tips for licking sticky interviews

When coaching people who are about to be interviewed by the press, common advice is to tell them to not answer questions too quickly, to take their time, to think, and so on. One of my favorite tips comes from an episode of The West Wing where Leo, who’s an expert at this stuff, has to be reminded to not accept the premise of the question. That’s a great tip, too! (See the graphic for more.)

Being grilled, even by a friendly griller, can cause you to feel like you’re being cooked while marinating in your own sweat! In any situation where you have to field questions, it’s good to have a tool that can help keep you cool. I’ve got just the thing to beat the heat of any Q/A situation: PBTAS. This is an acronym for the mnemonic, Peanut Butter Taffy Apple – Spit.

I shared this little treat with people at a school that recently went through a visit from an accrediting agency. Many had to sit through both one-on-one and group interviews, and they were a tad nervous. Later, more than one said my tip helped them to stay on point and keep their answers succinct. That’s the goal!

So, what does Peanut Butter Taffy Apple – Spit stand for? Pause, breathe, think, answer (or act), and stop.

Peanut = Pause. For some reason, when asked a question we feel like we need to have the answer on the tip of our tongues. Sometimes we feel almost compelled to start answering before they’re finished asking the question. When you are asked a question, you are not required to respond immediately. In fact, it’s usually best if you don’t. Listen carefully to the question. Don’t start focusing on formulating a response until you’ve heard and understood the complete question. Take a moment to pause and reflect.

Butter = Breathe. While you are pausing, breathe! Take a few slow, deep breaths; they’ll help relax you and clear your head. Breathing keeps the oxygen feeding into your blood which in turn feeds your brain.

Taffy = Think. When asked a question, you have the right to remain silent and actually think about how to answer. In fact, feel free to ask to have the question repeated, and then, just before you answer, restate the question. This gains you more time to formulate your best response. Never answer a question off the cuff without forethought!

Apple = Answer. Now it’s time to answer the question. You can’t hold out forever! But don’t sweat it. Tell the truth. Stick to the facts. Don’t spin. Use verbiage from the question in your answer. And if you don’t know something, say so. Don’t ever try to fake an answer when you really don’t know; it’ll come back to bite you sooner or later, especially if you’re dealing with the media.

Act. You can also use this little formula when working through a decision. In this case, the “A” would represent “Act” instead of “Answer.” Just as you can’t keep mum forever when in an interview, you don’t want to get locked up in a decision-making loop – you’ve got to step out and take action at some point.

Spit = Stop. Have you ever noticed that when you’re chatting with someone and both of you go quiet at the same time it feels a little awkward? Why? Silence between friends is not a bad thing! And it’s also not a bad thing after you’ve given a complete answer to a question. Just stop.

If you’re dealing with a reporter, or any interviewer, odds are they’re going to be quiet for a few moments even after it’s obvious you have finished answering their question. Why? Because the natural tendency is to fill the silence with more talking, and if you keep rambling on, odds are you’ll say something you wish you hadn’t.

A reporter isn’t as interested in your factually correct, nicely worded answer as much as he or she is hoping you’ll provide a provocative sound bite. You don’t want to go there. It’s much easier to bear the momentary awkward silence than it is to endure the never-ending embarrassing sound bite playing over and over on the news.

Stopping and remaining silent is kind like “spitting in the eye” of the reporter who is hoping against hope you’re going to ramble and fumble. Just stop it! Shush! Say no more!

So, there you have it: Peanut Butter Taffy Apple – Spit. Sure, feel free to use Pause, Breathe, Think, Answer – Stop if you want, but that’s just not as much fun to say or as easy to remember; the mnemonic has more stickiness!

This tool is handy in a job interview, when fielding questions from a group, when meeting with your boss, or any situation where you are required to answer questions. It’ll all be sweet when you remember Peanut Butter Taffy Apple – Spit.



  1. Small typo - you say applY instead of applE at one point.

    I like this tip, let's hope I don't need to use it any time soon in the employment area. I need to learn to do this in regulat conversations as well.

    1. I've read that typos in blogs make them more charming, but I fixed it :)


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