Putting “The Pivot” Into Play

I spent a few hours this week going over interview strategies with a friend.

My favorite play is “the pivot.”

It goes into play when the interviewer asks his or her guest a question that the guest isn’t interested in answering.

That’s an interesting question, but there’s another question that I’ve been thinking about . . .

Why not answer it?

Could be a few different things.

The guest might have something to hide.

Though it didn’t come in the form of an interview, interviewers asked Lance Armstrong the “What are you on?” question for years. His pivot came via a Nike Commercial.

What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?

The interview time might be running out and the guest has a point he wants to fit in.

Last year, Governor Christie was short on time during a press conference, when a reporter asked an off topic question.

“Did I say on topic? Are you stupid? On topic, on topic. Next question.”

Not the politest pivot, but a time-related pivot nonetheless.

The question might be uninformed or have such an obvious answer that you have to wonder why the question was even asked.

A few weeks back, Senator McCain was asked about tying border security to immigration reform.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, his answer falls into the category of someone wondering why they are being asked something with such an obvious answer.

Reporter: “How do you feel about not tying border security to citizenship?”

McCain: “What do you mean ‘not tying it’?”

Reporter: “Basically your plan…”

McCain: “Didn’t you see the press conference? Did you happen to miss it? What do you mean, ‘not tying’?”

Reporter: “But if somebody were to come out with a statement saying…”

McCain: “If somebody were to come out that’s in contradiction to what we said, we’d say we disagree with it. Duh.”

Presidential debates are classic venues for the pivot. The moderator asks one question, the candidates answer another.

At home, my kids follow the classic candidate debate format, not even trying to casually change the direction. They flat out answer a question that wasn’t asked, usually by offering up another question.

Me: Did you clean your room?

Five-year-old: What are we having for dinner?

In sports, the pivot often follows the “how upset?” or “how embarrassed?” questions that always follow games. The reporter catches the point guard for the losing team and, boom, there it is: “How upset were you that you lost?” Many of the seasoned athletes rarely miss a beat and go into exactly what happened in the game. “Yes, we’re upset, but . . . Here’s what worked . . . Here’s what we need to work on . . .”

In the case of Coach Mark Richt, after his team’s loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game, the pivot came when he turned the answer on the reporter:

Reporter: “There are some people, whether it’s fans, media, or whomever else, that will maybe want to make further conclusions about you or your quarterback, specifically, in big games. Would you have any response to those people?”

Richt: “I don’t know what you’re saying. Why don’t you just say it straight up what you’re trying to say.”

Reporter: “People will say that you and Aaron Murray specifically come up short on the biggest stage against the biggest opponents. Do you have any response to that?”

Richt: “Is that what you’re saying or everybody else? If that’s what you’re say . . . Are you saying that?”

Reporter: “No, I’m saying I hear that every day—“

Richt: “Well than that’s for you to worry about then. If that’ what you say, then I’ll answer the question. If you think other people are saying that, I’m not worried about that.”

We’ve all engaged in the pivot play at one point, whether we realize it or not.

The form the pivot takes will determine how we’re received. In the case of Armstrong, it was a clever, non-confrontational pivot that kept us guessing a decade longer.

For Christie, McCain and Richt, there are some who praised their styles and others who slotted them under “testy” and rude.

One of my favorite pivots came when I watched Col. T.X. Hammes do an interview in 2004, when journalists continued to use the word “terrorist” and Col. Hammes was using the word “insurgent”—a word that was not yet in wide use in conversations about the current war.

The reporter asked Col. Hammes a question about terrorism and Hammes replied:

“That’s a good question, but one that needs asking is . . . “

And from that point, the discussion changed.

I don’t have the video to share for that one, and my memory is hazy on the outlet on which I first noticed him pivot, but it still stands out because of how much he fit into that interview. Much of what he was talking about was new to reporters. They weren’t asking the best questions, so he led the interviews. He altered the dialog. He changed the conversation.

Pivots appear within all areas of our lives.

And, as with everything else in this world, pivots take both good and bad forms—and are put into play for selfish and for altruistic reasons.

Col. Hammes’ form is the one I always suggest. However, it’s good to study the others, too.

Learn the options so you can identify the difference between a defensive pivot and an offensive pivot—so that when you’re in the a pivot position, you can make a play that will improve the conversation.

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  1. Basilis on February 15, 2013 at 7:11 am

    No doubt, Hammes’s way is the best.

    The candidate debate format, from the other hand, just sucks!

    (But in a child’s hand it must be a killing weapon!) 😉

    • Callie Oettinger on February 21, 2013 at 4:16 am

      The pivot from a child is expected. For the five year old in my life its a mix of short attention span and not wanting to answer the question and not knowing that I can see what she’s doing, just as I can see her when she hides behind the curtains, feet sticking out, shadow showing, when playing hide and seek. The candidates know how to play hide & seek, and know the other games, too. From them, and others, playing the defensive pivot, it is plain frustrating.

      Then there are the ones on the offensive side, who do exist, and know how to make a play that adds to the conversation. Glad they’re there to weight the other side of the balance…

      • Tricia on February 23, 2013 at 10:38 am

        Been thinking a lot about this post since you wrote it. Very helpful to put it into the “language” of pivot playing. And to further point out the positive side of useful offensive pivots. Because then it becomes a strategy we can consciously employ instead of unconsciously react to.

        • Callie Oettinger on February 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm

          Thanks for your comment, Tricia. Whether you’re on defense or offense, staying calm is key. Listeners, viewers, readers, etc. tend to 1) tune out the message/messenger or 2) focus on the tone/style of the message – making it the news – instead of focusing on the message itself. I don’t fault Christie, McCain or Richt for pivoting in the examples within the post, but I wonder what the response would have been if they had done it in the style Armstrong did, which was calm, clever and kept people cheering for him.

  2. Kathy Ostman-Magnusen on February 15, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Funny but as I read this all I could think of was arguments with my X. He was better at it than me. That did not mean that he was right, just better at playing that game. Honesty is a lonely creature.

    • Callie Oettinger on February 21, 2013 at 4:12 am

      Kathy – Thank you for this comment. As I went back to pull example, it was the “defensive” pivot that presented itself most often. The ones using it are masters. It’s harder to find the “offensive” pivot, which alters directions to add to, rather than detract from, the person/subject in focus. Honesty has bedmates on the offensive side… Callie

  3. Jim T. Gammill on February 17, 2013 at 7:43 am

    Nice look into the “pivot”; this technique is one that can be observed in all forms of media as well as in our everyday lives! I think that it is ironic that Lance Armstrong readily did that commercial knowing that he was using PED’s. On that subject, does anyone else think they should leave the guy alone? Unfortunately in the world of professional sports you would be hard pressed to find someone who is not using. I think tighter restrictions are the answer not going back in time and erasing past achievements; before we know it the media will be telling us that Lance never even owned a bicycle!

    • Callie Oettinger on February 21, 2013 at 4:18 am

      Thanks for your comment, Erik. Seems that most of the defensive make this sort of play. There’s a long list of names that comes to mind… Will agree with Erik Dolson on the rest of your comment – a pivot into a different direction, yes?

  4. Erik Dolson on February 18, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Mr. Gammill, that was a great pivot.

  5. Jim Cornelius on February 21, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    I respect Richt’s pivot. As a journalist, I find the “people are saying” gambit lame and cowardly. Richt called the reporter on it and hat’s off to him for it. Ask the question straight up.

    • Callie Oettinger on February 24, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      Agreed, Jim r.e. the use of “people are saying” and Richt calling the reporter out on it. Richt was called out as being “testy” because of his tone, which then became the “news” … How he responded eclipsed the words/message he used to respond.

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