The Art of Answering Questions
When we work with individuals or teams to prepare for important presentations, our debrief always includes interest in the questions asked throughout the presentation. And the response is varied. Some presenters say they received no questions, others share a few and some presenters can’t remember.
Sometimes, they brush it off and want to talk more about how they did than how the listeners reacted. And yet, questions are arguably the most important part of most communication. The questions asked by listeners reveal how the information was received and how it’s likely to be used once the meeting wraps up.
When we coach big moments, we talk to presenters about how to impose questions on a group as a way to gauge what they heard and whether they’re aligned before the presentation ends. Questions are the clearest indicator a communicator gets on how well they transferred knowledge.
But answering questions is not a skill that most communicators learn or practice.
And that’s because questions aren’t considered to be critical or challenging early in your career.
In fact, as you begin to present to colleagues, questions may be easy to manage. You know the audience well, and when they ask questions, it’s easy to understand why they’re asking. They want to know how a topic impacts their work or their role. And chances are, the questions ask for more detail around something in the presentation. So, you can go an inch deeper or restate a concept to offer more context.
There may also be a manager in the room who manages the scope of questions for you. So, when someone asks for more detail or challenges a detail, you may get air cover to shut down a line of questioning or keep the topic in scope.
Early on, communicators rarely say they didn’t understand the reason a question was asked.
And yet, as opportunities expand and audiences become more diverse, that’s the most common complaint we hear from communicators. “I have no idea why they asked me that question.”
In the toolkit of communication skills, the inability to answer questions effectively will become a vulnerability for a communicator. And in fact, it will also become a determining factor of whether they continue to gain visibility to different groups.
As leaders interact with communicators, they always gauge how well someone shows up. Style and presence matters, clarity of messaging matters. But the ability to transfer knowledge through how questions are answered may matter the most. If confidence and clarity got you in a high-stakes meeting, it’s the ability to manage questions well that gets you back to the next one.
In fact, the ability to answer questions well is one of the most universal skills of communication because every manager and leader has to answer questions. Questions transcend across every setting from conference keynotes to media interviews, from investor days to board rooms, and from customer meetings to employee round tables. If you learn to manage questions well, you will leverage it in every step of your career.
It isn’t easy.
Questions are dynamic. They come from listeners, so you prepare for them the same way you prepare your storyline. You can anticipate about 60% of what will be asked if you consider the listeners’ perspective. But questions require real-time, in the moment content that means thinking on your feet and being as clear and focused as you were throughout the presentation.
As your career advances, questions become harder because audiences and listeners get more diverse. You don’t have the understanding that you did when you spoke to colleagues. You don’t always know why someone asks a question or how they’re trying to apply your response. It takes a new skill set and an intentional process to think on your feet and manage questions effectively.
We coach a three-step model for answering questions.
STEP ONE: Adjust the Question.
On any given topic, presenters have a defined sweet spot. It’s the scope of what they know and the depth of what they can answer. And yet, they rush in to answer things that they may not understand. They stumble when they try to answer anything and everything.
With broader audiences and more senior leaders, questions aren’t as simple or as clear. Leaders ask questions to connect recommendations or challenges to their areas of a business. And often, the communicator won’t know their area or can’t easily transfer their knowledge to it. So, they have to listen to the question and adjust the questions to what they can answer. Confidence in answering questions begins with the ability to adjust the question to your sweet spot.
STEP TWO: Answer in a Sentence.
Because the presenter often feels that the Q&A section is more informal, they shift from being “on point” to a more casual communication style. They think out loud and often ramble through an answer to get to a point. That makes it hard to follow a response, and it annoys the more seasoned listener. Learning to pause and organize a focused response is a discipline that comes with answering questions well. A one sentence answer signals a definitive response, whether it means a definitive answer or not.
STEP THREE: Illustrate a Response.
Once a listener reacts to a clear response, you can expand on an answer and offer more context or illustration of how your response applies to a function within the company. The more complex questions tend to evolve into a back and forth with a listener, and communicators need to be comfortable with managing questions that don’t have easy answers. They lead to more questions.
Questions with tougher audiences and more seasoned listeners are still a sign of transferring knowledge. But the application of concepts isn’t as clear, and questions often open up more discussion. Communicators become facilitators who can guide a diverse group to common takeaways.
If you’ve reached a point in your career where communication has shifted from informing groups to trying to influence decisions, then answering questions is now a critical skill. And because it’s a common gap and frequent request, we’ve pulled it out of our content programs and developed a workshop focused solely on the art of answering questions and thinking on your feet.
Check out Handling the Q&A as an upcoming Open Program or get a tailored one-day program for your team!
Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!