Do you know your content but dread unexpected questions? Here's how to answer difficult questions in Q & A.
Whether live or virtual, difficult questions during Q & A can change reality (somewhat). You can give a boffo speech that makes your influence soar—only for it to come crashing to earth when you can't answer questions.
Or requests to go deeper into your points.
Or outright hostility.
Questions and pushback can actually be a sign of continuing interest. But you need to be ready! Download my Free cheat sheet, "7 Tips for Overcoming Audience Resistance."
No, this isn't the time to hide from all those hands in the photo above. It's actually an opportunity for you to a) prepare to succeed beforehand, b) show yourself off in a good light, c) maintain emotional control, and most important, d) strengthen your message and influence. Let's look at how you accomplish all that in the crucible of Q & A.
Prepare Your Castle Before the Siege!
No self-respecting medieval mayor would allow his walled city to neglect stockpiling food, water, weapons, and supplies for a possible siege. And if livestock suddenly outnumbered citizens, well, that was just una vittima di guerra (a casualty of war). Fortunately, your preparation can be more streamlined and straightforward.
Actually, I use this imagery with clients and trainees when I say that you can't face Q & A as though you were on the battlements dodging flaming arrows. The key—just as in a media interview—is establishing control. In other words, you can't play defense all the time. You have to score some points—preferably a lot of them.
By all means, follow the standard advice of thinking about the questions you'll be asked beforehand. But don't turn yourself into a pretzel. I can testify from some of the radio interviews I've done for PR when my public speaking books were published, that you will never anticipate some of the wacky and irrelevant questions that will come your way. Spend a reasonable amount of time anticipating likely questions, then let it go.
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Instead, spend your time being crystal clear in your own mind what your purpose is in your remarks. I mean your specific purpose, using an active verb for how you want your audience to respond. "I want to inspire these listeners . . . " "I have to reassure the employees . . . " "It's my job to excite the sales force about this new product," etc. Doing so will give you a huge advantage in how you respond to questions. In other words, everything you say should advance what you're trying to achieve with these listeners.
Now make this even more concrete, by deciding on the three (or four, no more than five) key points you want to get across in the upcoming interaction. You will use this strategy to . . .
Turn Every Question to Your Advantage
This is how you transform what might be a defensive-leaning bloodbath, to a high score on your side of the board. You will use every opportunity offered to you in Q & A to get your critical points across. Don't waste opportunities by not using your time and responses to best effect. By following the three points below, you won't. (Not every question will be meant to provoke you, of course, so keep in mind that these tactics work for all types of queries.)
- Reframe the Question. This is an essential tactic that I taught the diplomats at the U.S. State Department, where I taught for many years. Many times, a question will be asked in a way designed to put you at a disadvantage, and even to contain false information. But even if the latter isn't true, it helps you to reframe the question in a way that a) is more accurate or fair, and b) prepares the ground so your answer is more favorable to your side.
- Set the Parameters. Some questions are just too broad, or wholly outside the topic. When this is the case, let everyone know it at the start. "I appreciate that question, but it's really beyond the scope of what I'm here to talk about" is a typical way you can begin. This approach is also effective if you're in an interdepartmental meeting, and people are sitting in whose area of expertise is highly specific (e.g., a lawyer, accountant, engineer, etc.). They understandably may want to hear about aspects of the project in their area of expertise. But it may have to be dealt with in another meeting.
- Bridge to Those Key Points You Want to Make. This is the tactic you've seen on display in this season of political debates, whether carried out skillfully or clumsily. The idea here is to get from what I call the "boggy ground" of a question that's hazardous to your success in this presentation, over the bridge to the solid ground of your purposeful answer. (Remember those key points you were going to take every opportunity to discuss?) To do this successfully, keep two things in mind: (1) get across the bridge quickly, because every second you struggle in the bog means you're not making points. And (2) use different language to get the same message across. One reason we say of political debates: "S/he didn't answer a single question!" is because the candidate didn't do this. They kept saying the same thing, using the identical language each time.
Maintain Emotional Control
When it comes to coping mechanisms for the worst kind of questions, emotional control is high on the list. Speaking of lists, I developed one that I teach clients who regularly face questions, called How to Survive The 7 Danger Zones of Q & A. Here are the "dangerous seven":
1. Hostile questions
2. Loaded questions
3. Leading questions
4. Hypothetical questions
5. Multifaceted questions
6. Fuzzy questions
7. False choices
Explaining each of these risky areas and appropriate strategies is beyond the scope of this article. (You can find the Free cheat sheet here.) But if there's an overriding principle for acquitting yourself well in Q & A, it's maintaining your emotional equilibrium and poise.
The danger always exists that you will feel attacked personally, rather than for your ideas. Naturally, you defend yourself. But remember what I said earlier: your job is still to make the critical points you're here to get across. When you get defensive, you no longer have your eye on the prize. So, defend your position while advancing your agenda! How? Always come back to what you're there to say. Also, the moment you lose your cool, you lose your audience. Let the other person alienate listeners.
A last piece of advice in terms of emotional control: breathe, and take your time. This is your talk, so take it at the pace you prefer. That not only keeps you in safer territory. It also makes you look like a leader, one who is in total control.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching worldwide. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here.