It's difficult to watch an Alvin Greene interview without laughing, then cringing, then feeling sorry for the guy. The 32-year-old jobless army veteran was unknown until just a few weeks ago when he won a shocking 60 per cent of the vote to clinch the Democratic nomination for Senate in South Carolina.
Reporters and news anchors scouted out the political newbie to ask him where he came from, how he'd campaigned and why nobody had heard of him until his win. The simplest of questions seemed to catch Mr. Greene - who seemed completely unrehearsed - off guard. When asked "What kind of campaigning did you do?" by a local reporter, Mr. Greene clumsily responded: "Can I end this?"
We may not all end up on the other side of news cameras like Mr. Greene, but there's ample opportunity to be put on the spot in job interviews and work presentations. Even if you have no clue how to answer that tough interview question or explain a major project at a management meeting, experts in the art of B.S. and confident delivery say there are techniques you can use to fake your way through any hairy situation.
Keep it general
When Guy Goma showed up to the BBC offices in London for a job interview in IT, he didn't expect to become an internet meme. Through a case of mistaken identity, he was brought on set for a live interview about purchasing music online. When they introduced him as Guy Kewney, the editor of a technology website, a look of horror and then sheepishness passed over Mr. Goma's face, but he quickly composed himself to fake his way through the interview.
His strategy? He kept his answers very, very general. When asked how a verdict about downloading music would affect customer behaviour, he replied:
"Actually, if you can go everywhere, you can see a lot of people downloading to the Internet and the website, and everything they want. But I think it is much better for the development and to inform people what they want and to get the easy way and so faster if they are looking for," Mr. Goma said.
That's the kind of response Keenan MacNeal has mastered. Mr. MacNeal, a 17-year-old student whose team won the World Schools Debating Championship earlier this year, says that whenever he knows little about a topic he speaks in broad terms. He used the strategy this year to nab a 90-per-cent mark on an essay about a book he hadn't read. The Calgarian also litters his speech and writing with buzzwords when he's unsure of himself.
"There are things that sound very specific but are very general: 'If we posit blank we can derive from that this piece of analysis.' Even if you state common wisdom that way, it sounds like you know what you're talking about," he explains. "[Use]posit, thesis, analysis, examine, reconsider, synthesize, synergize - all those great terms of the modern business place."
Take cues from performers
When Kalisa Hyman gave a PowerPoint presentation on marketing to a group of strangers last year in Memphis, Tenn., she appeared confident and charming. This was particularly impressive because the 43-year-old freelance writer had never seen the slides before. The third-place winner of PowerPoint Karaoke 2009, a competition in which contestants blindly deliver presentations to a crowd, says she was able to stay calm under pressure because she'd been in front of many audiences before.
"When I was younger, I used to sing a lot in talent shows and church and then I sang in choir," she says. "For me, the audience kind of provides a kind of adrenaline rush. I always thought I'd do better in front of an audience than I would on my own."
One of the first things Arlene Cohen, a Toronto public speaking, leadership and professional development coach, teaches her clients is how to breathe from the diaphragm. When your breathing is shallow, tension takes hold of your body and blocks all believability and credibility, she says.
"That is the fundamental," she says. "It's what singers use, it's what athletes use, it's what actors use."
Dodge the question creatively
"If they ask you a [question]and you kind of feel like they've kind of got you up against the wall, whatever you can do to deflect the question and then divert them into one of your prepared answers [helps]" says Iqbal Kassam, who went to the World Schools Debating Championship this year with Mr. MacNeal.
The 18-year-old Vancouverite usually anticipates questions when preparing for debates, and if one that's even vaguely related to a talking point comes up, he's ready to torque the question in his response so he can spit out what he does know. If you deliver the response with confidence, odds are that the questioner won't even realize you haven't answered his or her question, he says.
Never flat-out refuse to answer a question
Ms. Hyman, who worked for 15 years in public relations, training colleagues on how to present themselves in media interviews, says responding "no comment" to a question is the kiss of death.
"You never say 'no comment.' You come across looking like one of those 60 Minutes ambush interviews," she says.
Mr. MacNeal always cringes when he sees the debating equivalent of that response - when the speaker says he's already covered the topic, or that his partner will speak about it later.
"It looks like that person doesn't know what they're talking about … they look sloppy," he says.
If you aren't comfortable answering a question in a job interview, ask for more time, Ms. Cohen suggests.
"If you can't think of an answer, you can say: 'That's a great question. Can I think about it and e-mail it to you?' "
It's not the best response, she says, but "it's better than to blow it by saying any old thing."