Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Art of Fielding Questions

Some weeks back I discussed how you can up-level your presentations at work. While careful preparation, organization and practice are critical to presenting well, I find that employees I coach often dread the Q&A session following the presentation. They fear looking stupid or else stumbling over their words when responding to questions or interruptions to their well-prepared and timed presentation.  

You want questions

Really, you do. That’s the way to be sure you’ve gotten your message across and achieved your purpose. If you avoid answering questions, you miss the chance to understand your listeners’ objections. You won’t be able to figure out what you can do or say to convince them of your point of view. You’ll be frustrated when you don’t get what you want (resources, the okay for your recommendation, etc.), and you’ll lose an opportunity to show your expertise, confidence, and authority.  

Set ground rules*

Conferences normally set aside a Q&A time after each presentation, but audiences in typical business meetings/presentations play by their own rules. You may start your presentation by asking people to hold their questions until you’ve finished, but colleagues and especially senior level managers will jump in with questions or comments whenever they want.  You may say that you will address their concerns in the next slide or in a few minutes. Or, you may need to move around in your presentation to satisfy a senior manager. (Know your presentation organization so well that you can do so without stumbling around in the material.) However, if people keep interrupting to ask for clarity or data, consider that you should have better organized your presentation to put that priority information up front. Thus, it’s critical to practice your presentation with colleagues in advance of “game day.”*

Tips for responding to questions and interruptions

You should anticipate 90% of the questions that will be asked. After all, you are the expert, and you’ve rehearsed your presentation with your manager or other colleagues. Thus, you should have worked out answers to those obvious questions. Practice aloud your answers so you hear yourself speaking, instead of just running words through your head and then struggling for vocabulary under the stress of an actual presentation.  I’m amazed at how often presenters seem stunned by questions, when in truth they should have known exactly what the audience would ask.   

Fielding questions on the fly*

Of course, that one question you didn’t expect or can’t answer will arise. Here are some tips for handling the unforeseen.
·        Clarify with the questioner the specific nature of the question, so that you don’t begin speaking to a different point, only to waste time and look stupid when the questioner says, “That’s not what I asked.”  
·        Acknowledge (if true) that the question is important, interesting, insightful, critical, or even one you’ve asked yourself. Your honest statement is a compliment to the questioner, and it gives your brain a few seconds to organize a response.  
·        Make eye contact with the questioner, or, if on a teleconference call, repeat the name of the questioner. That connection helps you focus on the underlying nature of the question, and the intent of the questioner.
·        Be truthful. Never pretend to know what you don’t. Someone will know you are faking. You might need to state that you can’t answer the question. Do so calmly, and add that you will get back to the person with an answer. 
·        You might turn to a colleague and ask for help answering the question. It’s okay to call on others’ expertise, but you don’t want to lose control of the meeting. Thank your colleague and resume your presentation. 
·        If the interruption is not a question but rather a long statement, you might need to interrupt and ask the person what it is he/she wants to know. Don’t allow your presentation to turn into a platform for others to take over.  You’re at bat.*

·        * Note: In this blog I’ve included several idioms from the world of baseball. Please see my book, Touch All the Bases: The Culture and Idioms of America's Pastime - Baseball, to learn over 170 baseball idioms and expressions used daily in business.

Happy holidays,