When the Message Matters
The Ammerman Experience is a communications skills development firm that does one thing and one thing only: we show people how to effectively and confidently reach and influence others through the spoken word.

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As a leading communication skills development firm, The Ammerman Experience pioneered a wide range of interactive workshops and training sessions designed to show people how to face the media, manage crisis situations, speak at public meetings, and deliver effective sales, analyst, and other business related presentations. Through our quarterly newsletter, the Advisor, we share some of our expertise in these areas.

Why You Shouldn’t Talk About the Competition

Published: Jun 09, 2016

They say that comparison is the thief of joy. There’s certainly truth to that. When it comes to communication with the media, forcing a comparison is also an easy way for reporters to grab a juicy headline. You’ve probably seen it before; an executive is discussing their company and position when a reporter urges them to make a comparison.

It can seem innocent enough. Sometimes, they’re looking for a benefit statement: “What makes you better than Company XYZ?” Sometimes, though, they’re looking for something more interesting. “XYZ Company is known for innovation and got to market way before you. Why are they better than you?”

That’s a tough question. How should you respond?

The Danger of Getting Off Message

First, let’s review what makes comparison questions so dangerous.

Obviously, if you answer the second question, you’re conceding that your competitor is superior to you – and you’re probably giving the reporter a sound bite that will catch public’s ear. “Why are they better than you?” carries an obvious danger.

The first question (“What makes you better than Company XYZ?”) carries a subtle danger as well, however. That’s because the allusion to your competitor immediately puts you on the defensive in the conversation. We tell people never to speak about their competition, especially when they’re doing so defensively.

In fact, any question involving a comparison can be dangerous. Once you answer, you’ve implicitly given the questioner permission to continue. You’ve taken the first steps down a road that you probably don’t have the expertise to discuss – and getting off of your message can result in statements that you’ll regret.

How To Stay on Track

So, how do you keep away from the danger of comparison? Well, the simple answer is to avoid answering comparison questions at all. Instead, stay on your message; the one that’s safe, comfortable, and presents your company in the correct light.

In the midst of the media conversation, though, staying on message can be tricky. Here are a few techniques that you can use to help you stay on track.

1. Bridging

When comparisons come up, the best thing to do is to avoid answering directly. Instead, use a technique called bridging to get back to your message. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Question: “Company XYZ got to market first. What makes Company XYZ better than you?”
Bridge: “I can’t speak to what Company XYZ is doing, but what I can tell you is that we’re very excited about our new product launch, because…”

Question: “Your company used to be known for its innovation, but you are no longer an industry leader. What happened?”
Bridge: “I really can’t speak to the past, but what I can tell you is that…”

A bridge can be used to direct the conversation from the comparison question that you’ve been asked to the message that you want to communicate. In doing so, it will help you to avoid the trap of saying something you hadn’t wanted to say.

2. Identify Warning Flags

Prepare for your presentation, conference, or interview by identifying triggers or warning flags that will signal a road of questioning you should avoid. When these come up, you should be prepared to bridge back to your message.

One easy trigger to be aware of is any mention of your competitors.

Another flag is any question involving an event or situation you weren’t involved in. This can include past events involving your company, situations internally that are outside of your realm of expertise, or industry-related events.

While you should avoid answering directly, make sure that you’re aware of any newsworthy events in your company or industry. Reporters may ask for your thoughts on them. To avoid opening up rabbit holes, prepare for this contingency with thought-out responses that allow you to bridge back your message.

For example, one of our clients was presenting at a conference shortly after a major oil spill had occurred within his industry. He knew that he would be asked about the spill, so we helped him prepare a response to the situation that he felt comfortable with: “That was a tragedy, and it’s something our industry is definitely studying. However, until we know more, it wouldn’t be prudent for me to discuss the details at this time.” He was then able to bridge the conversation back to his message.

3. Develop a Substantial Message

When you’re asked a comparison question, you need something substantial to bridge back to. Take the time to develop good, solid, and consistent messaging about what differentiates you from your competitors, or to clearly convey what you want listeners to know.

Be able to tell people the things that are special about your company and explain how people will benefit from interacting with your company. You should be able to do this without comparing your company to others. Prepare a message that stands on its own merit.

Be Prepared

The theme underlying all of these techniques, of course, is proper preparation. Have a plan going in, and practice executing it. If you don’t, you’re far more likely to slip and say something that you’ll regret.

Once people are involved in a conversation, their default mode is to be as helpful as possible. This means that, if you haven’t practiced bridging, identified likely triggers, and developed a substantial message, you’ll probably end up offering more details than you should. If you take the time to prepare, though, staying on message will be much easier.

How to Recover When You’ve Slipped

Even with all of the preparation in the world, there will still be times when you answer a dangerous question or say something that you wish you hadn’t. We’ve all been there at one time or another. When this happens, what should you do? Well, there are still a couple of possibilities open after you’ve slipped.

First, if you’ve said something that is incorrect, take care to correct it. Speak in complete sentences to make sure that you are getting the correct information across clearly.

“I misspoke. I said that the average scholarship we offer is $10,000. Our average scholarship is actually $20,000.”

If, on the other hand, you’ve opened up a dangerous line of questioning, bridge out of it.

“I realize that I’m getting into an area that I’d rather not be discussing. What I can tell you is…”

Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t backpedal verbally in an attempt to qualify your previous answers. You’re much more likely to make things confusing, and you’re also much more likely to say something you’ll regret. Instead, get back to what you’ve prepared.

Don’t fall into the trap of comparison. If you prepare properly, you can keep comparison from stealing your joy and communicate a clear message that will represent your company well.

To be as prepared as possible, get in touch with us online to schedule a media training session. Our expert team can help you develop a consistent message and practice techniques to avoid the trap of comparison.

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