Day in and day out, smart, business-savvy corporate executives answer questions from reporters, public officials, and audiences of various stripes and sizes.
Amazingly, however, few have given thought to what they can do to properly manage their responses.
We are taught from an early age to reply literally. Does the phrase, “Honesty is the best policy” ring a bell? After all, there must be one single, correct, literal answer to every question, right? Well…no.
Certainly, you never want to tell falsehoods. Beyond the ethical considerations, lying means that you will lose your credibility forever. Still, most of us go through life serving up unembellished responses. Straightforward is fine in most casual conversations. But in a professional, public setting, this can lead to disaster and damage to your personal or organizational reputation.
Fear not. Hope exists in the form of techniques you can use to prepare and protect yourself, manage your responses to keep things from spinning out of control, and get your story out in a positive light.
The fact is most people in positions of authority dislike fielding questions. They may even appear defensive, for it makes them feel less in control. When executives learn that there are ways to deal with questions on a message-driven basis, it is often like introducing them to a whole new world. This is evidenced by some of the reactions I hear during communications training workshops and during speeches where we discuss effective Q&A management:
- That technique to ensure I stay on message when answering questions from the audience will really help settle my nerves.
- I can see why your approach really works when fielding questions from colleagues, clients…in just about every type of business meeting.
- I never realized I had so much control over how I responded to questions.
- I can’t wait to use your system the next time I talk to a reporter.
When you stop to think about it, much of our day-to-day conversations revolve around questions and answers. Our days begin with, “What do you want for breakfast?” and end with “What time should we set the alarm for tomorrow morning?” Questions like these have very literal, often mundane answers.
But what should we do after we leave the house and don our professional façades, with the focus on exchanges with reporters, audiences, lawmakers, and regulators?
It is important to realize that Q&A with peers, clients, co-workers, and business prospects is much the same as handling questions from reporters. Managing responses should add to clarity and consistency of message, providing an added opportunity to convey your story.
When you stop to think about it, much of our day-to-day conversations revolve around questions and answers.
When addressing assorted audiences, most speakers at some point engage in Q&A. Yet how many times have you witnessed a presenter deliver a top-notch speech, only to fall apart when dealing with questions because he had no idea how to direct the proceedings?
This happens not only during formal presentations. The same shortfall is also found in smaller, less structured groups, such as chalk talks to a small group of co-workers in your conference room and one-on-one meetings with your direct reports and other colleagues.
Of course, skill in answering questions is crucial during media opportunities, be they live television interviews, telephone Q&As with print reporters, or e-mail exchanges with reputable bloggers.