Every day, business executives answer questions from reporters, public officials, and audiences of various types. However, years of observation tell me that few have given thought to what they can do to properly manage those responses.
We are taught from an early age to reply literally since we are told—erroneously, in my view—that there is a single, literal answer to every question. Q&A is far more nuanced.
To be sure, you never want to lie. Beyond the ethical considerations, you will lose your credibility. Yet most of us go through life serving up literal responses. In public settings, this can damage your personal and organizational reputation. The good news is methods exist to help you better manage your Q&A exchanges.
Many people in positions of authority dislike fielding questions (admit it; when is the last time you really pushed your boss on a sensitive issue?). 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 when counseling clients on the strategy behind 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 can’t wait to use your system the next time I talk to a reporter.
- I never realized I had so much control over how I responded to questions.
Q&A Is an Everyday Occurrence
Successful encounters with reporters, audiences, lawmakers, and regulators rely on your ability to respond to questions. Moreover, handling Q&A with peers, clients, co-workers, and business prospects is much the same as dealing with reporters. Managing responses adds to clarity and consistency of message, providing an added opportunity to convey your story.
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.
News You Can Use
Let’s peek into the Q&A toolkit to explore some of the strategies you have at your disposal:
Bridging: It is mandatory that you acknowledge the question (spin is a sin), employ a transitional phrase, then deliver your message.
Flagging: Plant your verbal flag in the ground by highlighting your message with an introductory phrase such as, “The main lesson here is…” or “If there’s one thing you should remember…” For full details on these two techniques, see Chapter Eight, “Turing Questions Into Answers,” in The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations.
Sneak peek: This skill allows you to give your questioner a glimpse around the corner, guiding him down the road you want to travel. All you need do is drop a few words like “And that’s not all…” at the end of your sentence.
Deflection: With this more advanced technique, you essentially put up a verbal stop sign to questions that are overtly hostile. Only experienced spokespeople should attempt this, and only after much practice. For full treatment of these two latter tactics, see the position paper “Sneak Peeks and Deflections: Two Often Ignored Media Interview Techniques Every Executive Needs to Know”.
These techniques don’t come naturally to most of us, so studious, regular practice with your communications staff and consultant is advised.
Benefits You Earn by Managing Responses
It is important to recognize that your audience or conversation partner benefits when you use these tools to manage your responses. It keeps them engaged and interested in the subject at hand when you keep things on track. This is an important factor, for it gives your audience the information they bargained for when they decided to attend your presentation, or requested that media interview.
Think of it this way: You enter into a covenant when you engage in a public forum—you will stick to the agreed-upon topic. Fail to do that and your responses will sink into oblivion. Think back to the times you have been in the audience when a renegade questioner succeeded in pushing the speaker into a meaningless exchange. You probably were not thrilled. Rest assured, neither were your fellow audience members (to say nothing of the speaker).
Of course, dealing skillfully with questions also benefits you. It demonstrates you have what it takes to handle the heat in the hottest kitchen. It serves to enhance your reputation and help your organization attain its business goals. And I don’t mean only your communications goals, but speaking more broadly about how effective communications helps you achieve your overall objectives.
Successful management of Q&A also helps you avoid that deer in the headlights look that we all have witnessed when unskilled spokespeople are hit with tough questions from audience members or reporters.
It’s All About Enhancing Your Reputation
The choice is yours. You can keep muddling through your Q&A experiences. Or you can decide to leave behind the tired, ineffective way of answering questions by asserting control and steering the conversation more in your direction. Managing your responses is vital to the good health of your career and your company.
Why not share your Q&A experiences with The Media Training Blog community. How have you managed to successfully navigate your way through choppy waters? What pitfalls have you encountered along the way?
For a more thorough treatment of this crucial strategy, see “Does Anybody Have Any Questions for My Answers? The 411 on Q&A.”