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Steer Clear of These Tricks Journalists Use to Loosen Your Lips

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Loose lips sink ships. A variation of that phrase on a World War II poster cautioned U.S. military personnel to avoid accidentally sharing information with the enemy.

The advice is just as relevant today, especially when journalists are interviewing businesspeople for stories on a sensitive topic.

Their questions fall into three categories: innocent questions, trick questions and inquiries that sound like trick questions but really aren't. Here's some pointers about the latter two types:

Related: 5 Secrets to Talking to the Media (And Not Sounding Like a Fool)

Trick questions.

The following are five of the most common trick questions or statements that seasoned journalists use. I asked some of these when I worked as a newspaper reporter. Savvy news sources seldom fall into these traps.

1. "Who's going to tell me about this if you don't?"     

If you decide that you don't want to talk about a sensitive subject that's confidential, proprietary or off-limits, that's the reporter’s problem not yours.

But don't say “no comment” for a story about you or your organization. If you cannot comment, explain why.

2. "Off the record, can you tell me what happened?"

Many reporters pry off-the-record information out of news sources. But sometimes those facts find their way into news stories because one or both sides misunderstood when the off-the-record conversation ended and the on-the-record discussion began.

Even if the reporter admits the mistake, by then it's too late.  

It's best to never share information off the record. If you don't want to see something in the news, don't say it. Respond with a simple, "I won't go off the record."

3. "Just between you and me, can you give me the details?"

Reporters use this variation on the off-the-record request, trying to appear as a confidant. Don't go for the bait. Respond by saying, "Are you asking me for information that's on or off the record?" Then decide how much you want to share.

Related: Being Interviewed by the Press? Here's How to Prepare.

4. "One last thing..."

Almost every episode of Columbo includes this trick. At the end of an interview, Lieutenant Columbo closes his notebook, makes small talk and heads for the door. Just when the person feels relieved that the interview is over, Columbo turns around and says, "Oh, just one last thing." Then he delivers the killer question or statement that catches the person off guard: "You just said you were at work the day of the murder. But your boss told me you never showed up."   

Remember, even if the TV crew has packed up the lights and the camera, the interview is never over until the inquisitor is out the door. 

5. "Don't you think it's terrible that ..."

This is a way for a reporter with an agenda to steer you in the direction of what he or she wants you to discuss. Respond by saying, "That's not how I feel" or "Your assumption is incorrect." If appropriate, state you how really feel. 

Related: 4 Musts to Prepare for a Comfortable On-Camera Interview

Inquiries that are not tricks.

Expect good reporters to ask the following questions. Prepare responses before the interview.

"What's the biggest mistake you've made professionally?"

Even if your worst mistake was working far too long for a horrible boss at a previous job, it's not necessary to admit it. Instead, choose a mistake that steers clear of personalities. Perhaps you expanded operations into a community that wasn't a good fit for the company because you had not done your market research. Or maybe you waited too long to build an ecommerce website. Mention the mistake. Follow up with, "And here's what I learned from that."

"What's your annual revenue?"

If your company is publicly held, answer this question. If it isn't, you have two options. You can give a minimum range, say, more than $1 million. Or you can say that you'd prefer to not share that information. Not answering usually isn't a deal breaker and won't kill the story.   

“Can you give me an example?”

If you're making a key point or observation, be ready to back it up with a good example. 

“Can you prove that?”

You should be able to prove anything you tell a reporter. If you can point to a specific source from which you got your information, do so. Editors will often ask reporters to attribute facts in their stories.

“May I record this interview?”

A recording will help the reporter use accurate facts and quotes. You can record the interview, too. Be ready at a moment's notice with the right equipment to make your own recording during an in-person or telephone interview. Check the law in your state before recording anything on the phone.

If you know the difference between trick questions and all the others, you'll feel more confident during media interviews, and journalists will often report better stories.

Related: TV Interview Tips From a Former Presidential Campaign Spokeswoman