How Panelists can Respond to Pesky “Gotcha” Questions

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It’s every panelists’ nightmare: the panel moderator asks a question that comes from left field that leaves you staring like a deer in headlights.  Modeled by our 24/7 news cycle, interviewers are poised to ask “gotcha questions” that can be clipped into sound bites that travel the world instantaneously, often detached from the context in which it was said. Here are eight different types of “gotcha” questions:


9 Types of Gotcha Questions

  1. The Leading Question suggests the desired answer.
  2. The Loaded Question presupposes an unverified assumption.
  3. The Negative Question is phrased so negatively that it feels like there is no room to answer.
  4. The Faulty Premise is based on inaccurate information or an assertion that is not true.
  5. The Ambush is a provocative question asked in an unexpected situation.
  6. The Non-Question is a comment or statement vs. a question. 
  7. The Hypothetical Question is about something that has not actually happened yet.
  8. The “Left-Field” Question has no relationship to the topic or the reason why you are speaking. 
  9. The Personal Attack questions the panelist’s character often verging into the unpleasant, personal, and/or possibly offensive realm.

As an expert panelist or during any other interview, you can proactively prepare for cage-rattling questions, recognize the gotcha question, and reframe your response so that you can come out looking like a champ!

Proactively Prepare for Gotcha Questions

  • Research.  Media Relations Expert Jan Fox recommends you research the panel moderator, media host, and panelists.  Listen to their podcasts, watch their shows, Google their reviews, check for by-lines, and note any “gotcha” questions they tend to ask.
  • Reflect.  Clarity Coach and Strategist Pam Leinmiller suggests that you examine your vulnerabilities.  Ask yourself, “Who is this audience and what are their biggest concerns?  What is their paradigm?  Where are they coming from?  How will they respond to my message?  Is it controversial, new, or revolutionary?”
  • Anticipate.  You already have a good sense of where the gotcha questions will come from.  Business Book Strategist Cathy Fyock recommends you write down the worst questions you might be asked under whatever circumstance in two minutes.  It’s surprising how many questions you can think of!  Extend your search by talking to colleagues and those who understand the topic/situation by asking them, “If you wanted to catch me off guard, what would you ask me?” 
  • Practice.  Have someone ask you these tough questions. Fox advises you to “Rehearse short and concise answers, without ‘memorizing’ the answers. You know your material, so speak answers from what you know. That way you will not get tripped up.”
  • Prepare.  For each point you want to make, have an astounding fact, an interesting three-line story, an analogy, or comparison to add along with a 15-second sticky, tweetable, repeatable, and retainable sound bite.

Recognize the Gotcha Question

  • Actively Listen.  When asked any question, listen carefully to the question.  Try not to formulate a response to the question while the question is being asked or make an assumption about the questioner.
  • Spot It!  Notice the loaded trigger words that contain emotion, assumptions, faulty logic, or hypothetical verbiage.
  • Deeper Meaning.  Listen for the real question behind the question. What is actually prompting the question?
  • Pause.  Take a moment to give yourself time to think about how you can rephrase the question.

Respond to The Reframed Question

  • Media Expert Alan Stevens recommends a three-part “neutral rephrasing” to respond to the question:
    1. Clarify the Question.  Use specific language that tees up the fact that you are giving focus to the question you are willing to ask such as: “For the benefit of everybody else who might not have caught all of that, let me clarify what you are asking” or “What you want to know is…” 
    2. Rephrase. As you clarify, frame the question in your own neutral, non-judgmental way.  Media Training Expert Rosemary Ravinal recommends you “take the negative and emotional words out of the question and rephrase the question into the answer you already prepared!”
    3. Answer your rephrased question; NOT the gotcha question!  Bring it back to the facts and do not respond to the emotional underpinnings of the question. Be concise.  Only answer as much as is necessary and move on to the next question.

For multi-part questions, Stevens suggests you start with the question you can answer most confidently and in some detail.  Say, “Let me take that second point that you’ve raised.”  Then go back to the questioner and say, “I believe you had some other points… (Don’t say, “I’ve forgotten your questions”).  More often than not, they’ll say that was fine.

If you don’t know, be transparent and tell the questioner and the audience that you will find out and get back to them in the most appropriate way. Leinmiller says, “Honesty is the best policy.  Rather than say, ‘I don’t know.’ Try ‘Here’s what I CAN tell you….’”  Answer what you want and then briskly move on to the next question.

Even though it appears that the questioner has control of Q&A, the savvy, prepared panelist has ultimate command of the conversation.  “You’re in control of what you say because you already have the answers and the clear intention of what you want to say,” Ravinal explains.  “While the question can be deceptive or a tricky question, you stay on your topic and give the answers you want to give with great clarity and confidence.  It may not always match and that’s perfectly okay.”  Certainly not worth losing sleep over.

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This article first appeared in Speaker Magazine, August/September 2021.

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For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative career panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Kristin Arnold



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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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