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How To Stay Cool in the Hot Seat

In recent weeks, two high-profile chief executives failed their test on the hot seat. I'm talking about BP's (BP) Tony Hayward and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg was sweating so profusely during questions about users' privacy concerns that some bloggers dubbed it Zuckerberg's "Nixon moment," referring to Richard Nixon's sweaty performance in his television debates with John F. Kennedy in 1960.

On June 18, Hayward sat in the hot seat for seven hours as he was peppered with questions by U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The New York Times headline reflected the general tone of the media coverage: "BP Chief Avoids Personal Responsibility." On day 59 of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayward told lawmakers he played no role in decisions regarding how the well had been drilled, nor was he aware of reports that detailed some of the problems with the well in the days before it exploded, spewing millions of gallons of oil into Gulf waters.

Earlier in the month, 26-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg faced tough but predictable questions from The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the annual D: All Things Digital Conference. As Zuckerberg defended his company's privacy policies, so much sweat was dripping from his face that Swisher suggested he take off his hoodie. Zuckerberg said he was fine, wiped his forehead, and appeared visibly shocked at the amount of sweat that came off. He then took Swisher's advice. Now, it's possible that the combination of the hoodie and the lights caused Zuckerberg to perspire, but the damage had been done. Zuckerberg melted in the hot seat, giving bloggers who were already upset at Facebook's changes in privacy settings even more ammunition to take shots at the company.

Both Hayward and Zuckerberg failed to impress many observers. The two events provide lessons on how to respond to incidents that anger your audience. Here are my five suggestions:

Show empathy. Your audience might be slow to forgive, especially if your company is responsible for a terrible event, but they may never forgive you if you fail to show any hint of empathy for their concerns and problems. Hayward may be sincere when he says he "deeply regrets" the pain BP caused for the families of those who lost their lives and for the businesses in the Gulf region whose livelihoods are threatened, but many people find his words empty when he is photographed attending a yacht race while oil continues to spill into the Gulf.

Don't read from a script. If you are sorry about an incident, your words need to come from the heart, not from text that sounds like a lawyer wrote it. Hayward read his opening statement to a Congressional panel and said, "I fully grasp the terribly reality of the situation." Empathy should be directed to the audience (or TV cameras, in this case). Strong words of sympathy lose their emotional punch when read from notes or a script, because it looks as though someone else wrote the words. Your audience wants to see genuine and heartfelt pain.

Rehearse answers to obvious questions. The four most common questions after an incident are: What happened, why did it happen, what are you doing it about, and how will you prevent it from happening again? Rehearse clear, thorough, and succinct answers to each of those questions. Better yet, practice with a video camera to make sure you are coming across forcefully and confidently. The word "evasive" appeared in much of the coverage following both Hayward's appearance and Zuckerberg's interview. Zuckerberg was said to ramble in response to Kara Swisher's question: "Are you violating people's privacy?" This question should have been expected, and Zuckerberg should have been ready with a direct, succinct, and clear explanation.

Pay attention to body language. Much of the coverage following Hayward's appearance focused on how he looked. One reporter said he looked tired. Others wrote that he stared at his hands for long periods of time or cast his eyes downward. Notice how much of the impression he left on these observers had less to do with content than it had to do with how Hayward delivered the content. I've talked to jury consultants who say that two-thirds of a witnesses' credibility involves body language. Jurors trust people who give eye contact, have a strong posture, and don't fidget or dart their eyes.

Lose the hoodie. Zuckerberg was probably sweating because the lights were hot and he was wearing a hoodie. Whenever you are in front of a live audience, try to be comfortable. If you know it's going to be hot, wear something light. If you're going to sit for a long period of time, wear loose, comfortable clothing. If you know you're going to be videotaped, wear something professional. Think twice about wearing a sweatshirt.

It's unlikely you will ever face the same intense grilling that Hayward and Zuckerberg encountered, but it is likely that in the course of running your business, you will have to answer difficult questions from customers or investors, some of whom will be very, very upset over something you or your company did. Even if it wasn't your fault, the way you respond to an interrogation can leave people with a positive image, or it can further tarnish your brand and reputation.

Carmine Gallo is the communication skills coach for the world's most admired brands. He is a popular speaker and the author of several books including The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs. More of Gallo's columns are available in his biweekly series.

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