Here's how you can handle 'yes or no' questions effectively, whether it's an easy-going interview or a tough one.

How to answer the question effectively

Don’t embark on a long explanation which brings comprehension only at the end. Do begin with yes, no, or very short phrase—then add qualifications or essential details for understanding. That tip is a no-brainer which seems not to have reached the brains of many politicians. For example here’s an exchange I heard on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report.

Interviewer: “Minister, did you or did you not promise that the schedule would be announced in March?”
Minister: “Well, when you consider that it was a highly complex situation which had to go to two different select committees, and then of course we had to consult various city and district councils throughout the South Island, and-“
Interviewer (now irritated): “Minister it was a simple enough question. Yes, or no?”

In other words, the real message conveyed by the Minister was: I'm uncomfortable admitting I got something wrong but maybe you’re stupid enough for me to get away with confusing you with lots of words. A convoluted answer to avoid the point guarantees a loss of credibility. All the Minister had to do was begin with, “Yes, I did. But I could not deliver because…” etc. The credibility loss in an error is usually outweighed by the credibility gained in admitting it openly. We forgive mistakes much more quickly than deception and dodging.

But, you might ask, if you start with yes or no, couldn’t the reporter just use that bit and edit out the explanation? It's possible, but it's unusual… a risk well worth taking. What you must not risk is using words like the Minister—as a deceptive mask.

Boosting your credibility by answering the question with a short beginning

Even in easy-going interviews, short beginnings boost your credibility, because they deliver a platform of instant understanding of the explanation that follows. When asked to describe the significance of—for example—a proposed policy, you might begin with, ‘It’s a game changer. …’ or ‘It’s a token gesture. ...’ Other typical start phrases: ‘That’s true.’ ‘Absolutely not.' ‘It worked brilliantly.’ ‘It wasn’t that way at all.' Or even, ‘That’s not a yes-no answer.’

What about 'yes or no' questions in a tough media interview?

Let’s go back to the tough interview for a special case. When the interviewer puts an incorrect nuance on your words with, ‘So what you’re saying is…’ Your answer should not begin with yes or no, but with ‘What I’m saying is. …’

Most politicians do seem to have learned that one.

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Michael Brown, author of
Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority
Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority