Why Savannah Guthrie Was An Effective Moderator (And How You Can Question People In Power, Too)

NBC journalist Savannah Guthrie moderated a town hall with President Donald Trump in Miami, Florida. Guthrie received praise for her approach of tough questioning but not from everyone. No one will ever like everything you do. And in politics, some will never like anything you do. Consider the 20-60-20 framework where 20% will love what you do, 60% will live with your actions and 20% will be unhappy with it. Not liking what someone does is irrelevant to a person’s effectiveness. Guthrie was effective at getting Trump to answer the questions she wanted answered. Learn from Guthrie’s questioning technique, and follow these three tips: 

1.     Embrace your role.

Savannah Guthrie’s role was to be a moderator for the town hall. As moderator, her responsibility was to preside over the event. Her role gave her the authority to preside, and she owned her authority to control the event with her questions and the way she wanted to ask questions.

Even if you are on stage with the president of the United States, you still are important and have authority. You have just as much value. As Dr. Jane Goodall said, “Every individual has a role to play.” Your role has just as much value, and Guthrie knew that.

2.     Pull from your education and training.

Before being named anchor at NBC News, Guthrie earned her law degree at Georgetown University and practiced law with the international law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld where she specialized in white-collar criminal defense. She became a legal correspondent for Court TV and then for NBC before transitioning to be the network’s White House correspondent.

Guthrie knows how to question like a lawyer and question politicians. As a lawyer, she has been trained to be armed with facts and execute hard-hitting, focused questions. As a journalist, she has been trained to hold people accountable and extract information and truth. 

Recognize the power of and the skills you have learned from your experience. Your education and training give you authority. Your experience gives you power.

3.     Acknowledge the context.

The town hall Guthrie moderated came less than 20 days until the 2020 presidential election, during another surge in coronavirus cases and at the same time as a town hall for presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Guthrie knew the stakes were high. Millions of citizens are voting early. The lives and work of millions of citizens have been altered by the pandemic. Her network was being criticized for scheduling the event at the same time as Biden’s town hall on a competing network. She knew viewers wanted answers and that they would be a tough audience. She knew she had to be tough, too. Being nice and playing to gender stereotypes was not an option.

Use context to inform your approach and tactics. For Guthrie, the urgency of the election and the Covid-19 pandemic set the tone of the town hall. Not all interviews, events or questioning will or should take the approach she took, but circumstances can support your approach and bolster your decision to take that approach. Recognize the situation you are in, and leverage context.

You have the power to question people in positions of power. Like Savannah Guthrie, embrace your role, leverage your background and recognize the context.

What helps you to ask effective questions? Share with me your stories and thoughts via Twitter or LinkedIn.


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