Three Ways Klay Thompson Handles The Media As Well As A Basketball

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Three Ways Klay Thompson Handles The Media As Well As A Basketball on Monday, June 8, 2015.

Sports press conferences, which are intended to be a postmortem of a match, are usually nothing more than a fan fest in which the media ask harmless questions and the athletes and coaches provide boiler plate answers about teamwork. These innocuous exchanges occur most often in the sessions with winners. Losers occasionally get grilled with tough questions, but rarely do the questions rise to the intense level that we see in politics or in business.

So it was surprising, during a press conference following the Golden State Warriors’ exciting overtime win over the vaunted LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates in the first game of the NBA finals, to hear a reporter ask the Warriors’ shooting guard Klay Thompson: “Could you explain why it happened to you again that you had a rough start and the fact that you looked very bad in the beginning?”

“Don’t hold back,” Mr. Thompson replied with a big smile. “It might have just been nerves, a little bit. I rushed my shot, a little bit. This is the biggest stage I’ve ever been on.”

The reporter corrected himself. “Not you personally, the team.”

“Oh, thank you!” said Mr. Thompson, widening his smile. “I didn’t play well in the beginning—just a little rusty. After the first six minutes, I feel like we start to move the ball a lot better. The bench team did a great job.”

San Francisco Chronicle sports reporter  Rusty Simmons called the exchange, “a thing of legend.” I agree because it serves as a classic case study of three techniques to handle any challenging question in any setting.

First and most important, was Mr. Thompson’s candor in instantly accepting responsibility. Having sustained a serious concussion in a game eight days earlier, he had an opportunity to offer an alibi for his slow start, but did not.

Klay Thompson stands in sharp contrast to losing athletes and coaches who, at best, shunt to an elusive “We’ve got to play better.” Or to politicians who parrot the ill-conceived advice of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the controversial Vietnam War, who infamously said, “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.”

Inexplicably, this misguided advice has been adopted and deployed by generations of politicians—and generations of business people and their “media” advisors—to not only evade charges against them, but to spin off to a wholly new subject. By accepting responsibility, Mr. Thompson earned the right to answer the question that “he wished had been asked,” to acknowledge and compliment his teammates—and to reinforce his own message.

His candor was preceded by that big smile when he said, “Don’t hold back.” Contrast that with the defensive mien or behavior—or ducking behind a lawyer—that politicians and business people often exhibit. Mr.  Thompson’s positive approach surprised and chastened the reporter, causing him to back up and soften his question.

Let Klay Thompson’s three techniques be a lesson for you:

  1. Be candid. Take responsibility for your actions.
  2. Be positive—rather than defensive or, as many politicians do, become contentious.
  3. Reinforce your own message. You can follow the second half of Mr. McNamara’s advice to answer the question you wish had been asked of you, but only after you’ve answered the question that is asked of you.

This last technique is called “Topspin,” a technique I describe in detail in my book, In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Three Ways Klay Thompson Handles The Media As Well As A Basketball on Monday, June 8, 2015.