Lessons from the tech CEO grilling session

By Seamus Byrne in Media News on


When you get the chance to sit down and ask a Silicon Valley CEO some questions, you’d better be prepared.
At today’s congressional subcommittee hearings into anti-trust concerns over Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple and their associated market power, too many committee members had not done their homework. Maybe they thought they had, or maybe they just thought they were the smartest people in the room. But both the good and the bad questions showed textbook lessons for journalists – and corporate executives – on how to prepare and conduct yourself in a big interview.
The big failing was the classic: thinking you could possibly ask something they were not expecting to be asked. Anti-conservative bias on Facebook? Conservative bias on Facebook? Zuckerberg’s answers weren’t great, but they were the ‘standard words’ we hear repeated on a regular basis. If you go too broad, you let them say what they were prepared to tell you.
The truly great questions thread the needle perfectly. Like Skywalker’s shot on the Death Star trench run, almost every question is just going to impact on the surface, but with good preparation (and a little help from The Force) you can land a shot that forces an answer to go somewhere they were hoping you wouldn’t reach.
These questions go directly to specifics. When asked broadly about ad targeting toward children on YouTube, Pichai had answers we’ve heard many times before. When asked by Mary Scanlon if Sesame Street can block junk food advertisers from its channel? Pichai leaned back on “user choice” and “subscriptions so you don’t see ads” because the answer was really “no, Sesame Street can’t do that”. Specificity reveals the canned responses where there is no good answer to be the weasel words they are.
Others know how to thread the needle, usually with a one-two punch. Ask them one question you expect a certain answer to so you can make them trip over their prepared response, or skip to the second question because you already know the answer to the first. Don’t waste your time by letting them make their obvious speech.
Pramila Jayapal pinned Bezos on the misuse of seller data to crush its competition. He admitted it might still happen. He might not have admitted as much if there wasn’t a Wall Street Journal scoop in April that showed it was happening. Jayapal knew she had that ammunition in her back pocket, and Bezos decided to give the honest answer first instead of getting trapped. But it still meant he had to give the honest answer.
It’s important to know that the CEOs knew this was live. This is not the same as when we get the chance to sit in a quiet room and talk. In that context they know their every facial expression won’t also be analysed frame-by-frame like they were in today’s hearings. Poor Bezos was the ‘every man’ who forgot to unmute at one point. Maybe that was staged to make him seem more human? It’s hard to know…
There were so many more moments, and I thank my learned colleagues for doing most of the viewing so I didn’t have to. But it’s worth watching more than a few minutes to see what both sides did right and wrong. The CEOs were coached by the best in the business. Thinking of ways to get something genuine out of them is a great exercise.
What would you have done differently?

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Follow Lambert on LinkedIn.

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