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Principles and Practices
Presenting Information at Public Meetings (continued)

Historical Document

This document is provided by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) ONLY as an historical reference for the public health community. It is no longer being maintained and the data it contains may no longer be current and/or accurate.

Ten Deadly Sins of Communication

  1. Appearing unprepared.
  2. Handling questions improperly.
  3. Apologizing for yourself or the organization.
  4. Not knowing knowable information.
  5. Unprofessional use of audiovisual aids.
  6. Seeming to be off schedule.
  7. Not involving participants.
  8. Not establishing rapport.
  9. Appearing disorganized.
  10. Providing the wrong content.

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Answering Questions

As with presentations, your responses to individual's questions and concerns will affect your success. Prepare and practice. Consider how to answer questions in general and how to respond to specific inquiries.

Guidelines

  • Be prepared. If you know your subject and know your audience, most questions can be anticipated. Develop and practice responses.
  • Track Your Key Messages. Use your responses as opportunity to reemphasize your key messages.
  • Keep Your Answers Short and Focused. Your answer should be less than 2 minutes long.
  • Practice Self-Management. Listen. Be confident and factual. Control your emotions.
  • Speak and Act with Integrity. Tell the truth. If you don't know, say so. Follow up as promised. If you are unsure of a question, repeat or paraphrase it to be certain of the meaning.

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Sample Questions

The following sample questions illustrate what you are likely to encounter, along with suggested key messages and tips for responding to them. For a discussion of different types of tough questions, consult Communicate with Power: Encountering the Media, Barry McLoughlin Associates, Inc., 1990.

  • You are here as a representative of "x." Why doesn't "x" have a program to investigate hazardous waste sites?

    Key Message: We do have a policy to investigate hazardous waste sites. In fact, we...

    • State in a positive manner that you do not agree with the questioner's statement. Do not try to ignore it.
    • Be polite but firm.
    • Take the opportunity to restate your position or message.
  • Your boss said that he was confident that there would be no problems found at this location. Doesn't he know that dumping 1,000 gallons of oil, paint thinner, and solvent near the vehicle shop can cause serious public health problems? Or is he trying to sway the results of the study?

    Key Message: Evaluating the safe disposal of these products is part of the overall investigation that we are conducting to ensure the continued safety of the public.

    • Do not repeat the negative words. Refute without repeating allegations.
    • Return to your message.
  • You've told us about the agency's position on water quality. But would you drink the water?

    Key Message: I'm also concerned about the quality of drinking water - not only as an agency representative but also as a fellow citizen. Given all I know about the issue and given the type of person I am, yes, I would drink the water.

    • Be prepared for personal questions.
      If you do not agree with the agency's position, you should not act as a spokesperson.
  • Does EPA agree with what you are doing here?

    Key Message: We follow EPA guidelines and send EPA copies of all our studies.

    • Refer questions to the appropriate person or organization.
    • Speak only to what you know and on behalf of the organization you represent.
  • Do you know the exact figure on how much money has been spent to date on this problem?

    Key Message: I don't know the exact figure. But if you will give me your name and number, I will get that information for you by...

    • Say you don't know.
    • Offer to get the information by a specified time.
    • Don't lie or make up an answer.
    • If you promise to get the information, follow up.
  • We've heard that your agency and the state regulators have made a deal to clean up heavy contamination quietly and not to do a proper hazardous waste investigation because it would be embarrassing to admit this area was missed earlier. Why is your agency being insensitive by dragging its feet on this environmental issue?

    Key Message: Our goal is to fully protect the safety and health of the community and to do so in compliance with all applicable federal and state laws and regulations. We have issued several news releases on the study.

    • Respond with a straightforward statement of theme.
  • What do you plan to do about the lawsuit that a local business has filed against your agency claiming compensation for loss of business?

    Key Message: That's a legitimate question. But while the case is in progress, I am not able to discuss this.

    • Give a reason why you can't answer.
  • What are your qualifications to run this program?

    Key Message: I have several years' experience in managing programs of this type, and I have a team of professionals working with me to ensure that all aspects of the program are carried out with quality.

    • Don't respond with hostility or emotion.
    • Remove emotional words.
  • Don't you know that you cannot make final decisions without providing for public comment, you idiot?

    Key Message: All final decisions must take public comments very seriously.

    • Restate, removing hostile or negative tone.
  • It must be really hard to deal with all of your environmental problems.

    Key Message: My training and experience prepare me to deal with environmental, safety, and health problems, and I am here to do the best job I can for the community.

    • Don't buy into the sympathetic approach. You may end up agreeing and destroy your credibility.
  • In reference to groundwater contamination, why do you think your agency doesn't care about the health of its neighbors?

    Key Message: We are very much concerned about the health of our neighbors.

  • Then why does it take over 5 years of study to come up with a solution to remediate your contamination of our groundwater?

    Key Message: I want to make sure that it is clear that we take care of any situation that poses an immediate danger without delay. During our study, which for many reasons is an extensive and expensive process, we did not find an immediate health threat. If we had, we would have taken immediate action. Public health is always our top concern.

    • Be polite but firm.
    • Return to your message.
    • Repeat your statements.
    • Be careful not to repeat negative words like contamination of the public groundwater.
  • What is the worst-case scenario?

    Key Message: I would not want to speculate. We are working hard to ensure the health and safety of this community. The study we are conducting will include testing of soil, groundwater...

    • Don't speculate.
    • If you do speculate, categorize it as such.
  • We have heard a rumor that there are serious groundwater problems at this site.

    Key Message: This is the first time I've heard this rumor. The data I have seen indicate that no groundwater problems exist at this site.

    • Don't respond to rumor.
    • Do tell the truth.
  • Why do you want to expand? And did you send an undercover employee to a private meeting and what information did he gather?

    Key Message: Let me respond to your first question. The community has legitimate concerns about...

    • Choose the easiest to answer first.
    • Don't answer them all at once.
  • What would you recommend that your boss do to address the concerns of the public on these contamination problems?

    Key Message: My boss can request advice and guidance from anyone concerning safe environmental practices. When I'm asked, I provide whatever assistance I can.

    • Don't give this kind of advice when talking to the public or media.

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    Some DOS and Don'ts of Listening
    (Atwater 1989)

    Do:

    • Become aware of your own listening habits.
    • Share responsibility for the communication.
    • Concentrate on what the speaker is saying.
    • Listen for the total meaning, including feelings.
    • Observe the speaker's nonverbal signals.
    • Adopt an accepting attitude.
    • Express empathic understanding.
    • Listen to yourself.
    • "Close the loop" of listening by taking appropriate action.

    Don't:

    • Mistake not talking for listening.
    • Fake listening.
    • Interrupt needlessly.
    • Pass judgment too quickly.
    • Make arguing an "ego-trip;" don't argue.
    • Ever tell a speaker, "I know exactly how you feel."
    • Overreact to emotional words.
    • Give advice unless it is requested.
    • Use listening as a way of hiding yourself.

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    Managing Hostile Situations

    Issues of health and environment can arouse strong anger and hostility. Consider some things you can do to diffuse anger and re-direct hostile energy.

    Remember

    • Environmental issues can arouse strong emotions, including anger and hostility.
    • Hostility is usually directed at you as a representative of an organization, not you as an individual.
    • Dealing ineffectively with hostility can erode trust and credibility.

    Some Things You Can Do

    • Acknowledge the Existence of Hostility.
      • You are sending the message that you are in control.
      • The worst thing you can do is pretend it's not there.
    • Practice Self-Management.
      • Control your apprehension.
      • Anxiety undercuts confidence, concentration, and momentum.
      • Listen.
    • Be Prepared
      • Plan, prepare, and practice your presentation and anticipated questions and answers.
    • Communicate Empathy and Caring.
      • Recognize people's frustrations.
      • Use eye contact.
      • Assume a listening posture.
      • Answer questions carefully and thoughtfully.
    • Track Your Messages.
      • Turn negatives into positives.
      • Bridge back to your messages.

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