Can I Get Back to You On That?
Jeff is leading a strategy discussion about a new product that his team hopes to roll out in 2022. His team has invested a lot of time and effort to get product capability and customer needs aligned. It’s been an 18-month journey, and it culminates today in this meeting around this ask of the executive team. He feels the pressure of representing the team and getting a green light to move ahead.
Ten minutes into the presentation, he feels confident. He has a compelling storyline, and he sees heads nodding as he connects the opportunity and describes the market gap for his listeners.
And then the Head of the Western Region jumps in and asks:
“How do you see this product performing in 2023 when we accelerate our global growth strategy?”
Jeff can feel the rush of adrenaline, and his flushed cheeks, and he realizes that he has no idea how this product would perform on a global scale. His team and his effort have been so focused on driving 2022 revenue in the US market that the road ahead of that wasn’t even considered. He’s caught off-guard and tries to recover with “Can I get back to you on that?”
Every executive-level conversation is different, but they all involve questions and answers. It’s the most dynamic part of the conversation and the hardest part to prepare for. Some say the virtual setting has made it worse because communicators can’t read body language on leaders or anticipate the emotion and reaction behind the questions.
Like Jeff’s experience, many communicators feel that the effort in the storyline gets forgotten if the Q&A doesn’t deliver the right responses. It’s not quite that cut and dry, but handling questions effectively is an “in the moment” skill to develop.
It helps to understand both perspectives in a Q&A discussion.
The communicator feels like they’re in the “hot seat” when questions are fired their way. They feel pressure to get answers right, and they worry about giving the response they think leaders want to hear. As a result, they tend to overload a response which makes their answer hard to follow.
Leaders don’t view Q&A as a test. In fact, some of the questions they ask don’t have clear answers. Their interest in Q&A is all about connecting ideas. Their role is to think about a topic more broadly to see how it impacts other initiatives. As a result, their questions aren’t easy because they leave out context that helps a communicator understand why the question was asked.
Communicators would feel less pressure if they understood more about the leaders’ intent. Leaders could clarify their intent with more context around their questions. So, there’s room to improve on both sides, but the pressure to improve Q&A falls heavily on the communicator.
There are three things a communicator can do to improve the outcome of Q&A:
Anticipate the questions. Not from your perspective, but from the leaders. More than 75% of questions are predictable. You just have to learn to think from the leader’s perspective. What are the priorities across the company? What are they talking about in town halls and quarterly meetings? If you think through how your topic connects to their priorities instead of waiting for questions that stretch the conversation, you’ll feel prepared for what they’re likely to ask to broaden the topic.
Adjust the questions. All communicators jump in to answer whatever they’re asked. But the better practice is listening to the question and resetting the scope of the question, when needed. Because if the first question seems a little vague, the follow-up question is guaranteed to make the communicator uncomfortable.
Consider Jeff’s question above. He could “guess” at an answer and say:
“I think the product will continue to do well into 2023 and will support our global expansion plan.”
The leader will come back with:
“How much revenue can you commit to the plan and how will we adjust the product to global requirements?”
Now Jeff is out on a limb, and his lack of knowledge is going to feel more exposed. He’s in danger of saying the wrong thing and misleading a leader. His better option is to adjust the question. It’s too broad for what he’s comfortable owning about the new product.
His adjustment would be:
“I can’t speak to a global impact or two years out in 2023. But I can tell you what we’re projecting for the US in 2022 and the momentum we expect to have at the start of 2023.”
Answer in a single sentence. In an attempt to answer with confidence, most communicators start talking while they’re forming an answer. Their plan is to talk their way to an answer. The problem is they ramble a good bit along the way. The leader gets lost in the rambling details and feels as if there wasn’t a definitive response. The best way to answer a question is with a clear, single sentence and then provide the context to support it.
And if you don’t know the answer? “Can I get back to you on that?” Yes, you can always get back to them. But get back quickly. Within the same day, when they’re asking for a missing data point or number you referenced but can’t recall. Within 48 hours, when they’re asking a more complex question like the comparison to a different product or historical data that supports trends. And if you can’t get the answer that quickly, be sure you manage expectations of when you will have it.
And what about the question that’s out of your sweet spot like Jeff’s was? As the meeting wraps up, ask the leader if they want you to expand your topic to include it. In many cases, they don’t want to go further with the question or they don’t mean to add it to your plate. They’re simply bringing their perspective and forward-thinking into the conversation.
Handling questions is a critical communication skill, and coaching all aspects of executive-level presentations is our sweet spot. And we can help you and your team strengthen the skills it takes to manage questions.
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