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July 2013

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Giving Value-Added Answers to Tough Questions

When he was US secretary of state decades ago, Henry Kissinger once started a press conference by asking if anyone had any questions for his answers.

That approach won’t work with today’s potential business students, who are sophisticated consumers and expect more, Rich D’Amato, GMAC vice president of global communications, told an audience at the GMAC Annual Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. “When facing tough questions, you’ve got to meet enough of their answers to make them feel that they’ve gotten real value,” he said.

image of message pyramid

Above: The Key Message Profile is a easy 
way to organize your communication points.

D’Amato moderated a panel titled Giving Value-Added Answers to Tough Questions, featuring members of the GMAC Communications Advisory Group of business school communications professionals.

Rather than offering rebuttals or denials, think ATM – Acknowledge/Answer, Transition, Message, D’Amato said. To demonstrate, Kiki Keating of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Marie Oates of IESE Business School, did some role playing, with Keating asking Oates if it was really worth it to go to business school, given the high tuition, tough economy, and uncertain job prospects for graduates. Oates responded by:

  • Acknowledging the tough economy and recent media coverage about uncertain job prospects.
  • Transitioning to Warren Buffett’s value investing, buying during tough times.
  • Messaging about the value of the MBA over a career, using data from GMAC.

In turn, Oates noted that although Tuck is a great school, she was worried that the Hanover, New Hampshire, location might be too remote. Keating responded by:

  • Acknowledging that Tuck is not in a big city and may not be for everyone.
  • Transitioning to the positive aspects of the rural setting, such as the resulting tight-knit student body, faculty accessibility, and personal approach.
  • Messaging that noted that, because of the remote settings, there were fewer distractions for both students and recruiters, who tend to spend the night and take students to meals when they come to Hanover.

It is helpful to practice your presentation, because those moments of hesitation are more obvious than you think, D’Amato said. In addition, body language is as important as your words, so respecting personal space, listening attentively, and taking care not to interrupt are important. You may be making mistakes you‘re not aware of, he added. Keating and Oates demonstrated rapport-killing mistakes, such as not respecting personal space, being distracted by a mobile phone (“Excuse me, this might be important”), and not listening.

Oates suggested working with your team to create an archive of difficult questions that come up again and again. “It’s a good idea to get in the habit of writing down difficult questions when you get them and keeping a list of those tough questions, so you can work with your team to create the best responses. This will help you develop unified messages that you can take into talks.”

In working with your team on tough questions, you can also address the common ones in your presentation so it has already been addressed on your own terms before you meet with potential students one on one, Keating said.

She also noted that storytelling is an important part of bringing your messages to a personal level. But you have to be systematic in mining anecdotes from students, alumni, faculty, and staff to support your key messages.

“You’ll get great stories if you ask,” she said. “People don’t remember nearly as much as we want them to remember – but they do remember stories. They are the real value-add to tough questions.”

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