The car-crash interview of Diane Abbott on LBC Radio (if you haven’t heard it yet, listen here) was the first of many I expect we will hear during the election process. For as long as politicians are poorly briefed, manifesto promises incorrectly costed with policies not properly thought through they will struggle in the face of good interviewers whose goal is to catch them out on data issues and produce cringe-making sound bites for the entertainment of the public. Laura Kuenssberg’s seven-time question to Jeremy Corbyn about his commitment to take the UK out of the EU whatever the deal achieved at the end of the two year negotiation in her interview with him on Tuesday (the data-answer to which was a simple Yes or No) left Corbyn looking unsure of his own policy, and was the segment of the interview that led the news at the expense of focussing on Labour Party policy announcements.
The syndrome is not just common in political interviewing but also in commercial negotiating. Data has become an increasingly important element of the negotiating process; many negotiations don’t move forward until conflicts in data and its interpretation are resolved and often these data conflicts become negotiations in themselves. Most salespeople can tell stories of being unprepared for an onslaught of data requests from a buyer for which they had no answers, sometimes because they were ill prepared, or because no-one had thought to collect the data in the first place. In the face of these demands the inexperienced mumble and fumble, mis-speak, get confused, lose confidence and end up looking, sounding and feeling stupid. Which from the buying side of the table is exactly the objective because a despondent seller does poorer deals.
Of course the preventative to this embarrassment is good preparation particularly in terms of exploring the negotiating counter-parties likely behaviour, which in this case will include an analysis of the data they might demand, rehearing the responses which will be most effective and thinking about the unintended consequences that might result. If Diane Abbott had revealed that the true cost of adding 10,000 police was £1/3billion not £300,000, the obvious question becomes ‘where will that money come from?’
But I would argue that the attacking behaviour of the questioner/interviewer is actually often counter-productive. It might make good TV, or shift the power balance in a negotiation, but it is not revelatory of the facts and in a commercial environment will possibly close down any previous plan to engage collaboratively. The spat between Theresa May and the EU bureaucrats about what was said at the dinner at Downing Street couple weeks ago is a case in point. Lack of data (the facts) simply sours the relationship and makes future negotiations that bit more difficult. Yes, of course we all know this is just posturing by both sides, but it has pernicious side effects and is better avoided unless there is a specific thought-through objective.