You know your subject, you’ve done your research, and you’re about to make a presentation to the class. Then, your lab partner who hates you raises her hand…
Your boss asks you for a briefing on an important situation – and your information is incomplete, outdated, or inaccurate…
A job interviewer wants to know why you left your last job – from which you were fired…
How would you fare in these stressful and difficult situations?
Unfortunately, a successful Q&A session has more to do with strategy than actual content knowledge.
When faced with a challenging question, people who know their stuff do not always shine. People who are skilled at improvisation do.
So – how do you become one of them?
Here is a simple 4-step strategy that will help you to answer even the most difficult of questions like an expert:
1. Take Your Time.
In our fast paced society, we are often convinced that a quick response is a good one. This could not be further from the truth. When we rush our answers in times of stress, we sound unsure of ourselves and unprepared for the conversation. Instead, take the time to formulate an answer before you speak. Do not say “um” or “uh” while you do this – this will undermine your sense of confidence. Simply pause and look thoughtful. You may feel as though the silence goes on forever, but it is likely that only a few moments have passed. Begin to speak only when your response is entirely formed. Then, you can focus on relating your points with confidence, rather than thinking them up as you go.
2. Consider Your Audience.
The delivery of your answer should be tailored to match the group of people you are speaking to. Use appropriate language. Avoid words that might be difficult for your audience to understand. Speaking at too high of a level may confuse or alienate your audience. It can also come across as condescending. Double check your response for offensive or controversial content. Edit your answers to emphasize content that is of interest and importance to your particular audience. A good response will likely sound entirely different depending on whether you are addressing a group of mothers, blue-collar workers, religious leaders, or university students.
3. Be Selective.
There’s nothing wrong with failing to answer a question. In fact, this is far preferable to answering incorrectly or uncertainly. Only reveal information if you are confident in its accuracy. If you decline to answer a question, explain why in an even and self-assured tone. Then, provide next steps in finding the answer if possible. “Great question,” you might say. “I have not come across that information yet, but here are some sources that might be helpful to you…” If you’re caught without information that you really should know, apologize and offer to get it for them promptly. “I’m sorry, I don’t have that information in front of me – but I can follow up with you via email after the meeting.”
4. Emphasize what you do know.
Whenever possible, steer the subject to an area in which you have rich knowledge and well-developed ideas. For example, consider that you are running for office in a small town. A reporter asks how you plan to improve the economy. You don’t know. However, you have lots of great ideas regarding public education. Rather than floundering and revealing your lack of economic acumen, you would be wise to choose to change course. “The key to a thriving economy is a well-educated population,” you might say. “Here’s what’s not working in our public school system, and here are my plans to fix it…”
“There are always answers. We just have to be smart enough,” wrote John Green. Don’t allow yourself to be thrown by a difficult question. Find an answer, even if it’s not the one they may be looking for. Speak with confidence, smile with sincerity, and relay facts with accuracy. Your choices in presenting your content are often more crucial than the information itself.