You may be a pro at public speaking, but when the floor opens up for questions from the audience, even experienced speakers can get nervous. But delivering your own message is only half the battle for great leaders and communicators. If you can answer direct questions well, you'll leave a good impression. In fact, Q&A session gives you an opportunity to shine in ways a prepared address simply can't. So how do you give answers that impress audiences no matter what they throw at you? Here are six guidelines.
Begin by pausing. Avoid the verbal tics most of us tend to lean on—"um," "ah," and "that’s a good question." Those are filler expressions that mark the beginning of a speaker’s answer. Instead, pause a few seconds to think about your answer before you begin talking. That moment of silence might feel uncomfortable, but it will show that you're confident and composed enough to reflect seriously on what’s been asked. The pause also sets up the expectation that your answer will be a thoughtful one.
Next, show that you’ve heard the question and have respect for the questioner by building off of what she's asked you. There are a few ways you can do this:
Be empathetic. If an employee asks about layoffs, bridge by saying, "I understand your concern" or "I'm sure everyone here is asking that same question."
Neutralize negatives. If a question raises an unsavory point, don't get defensive or dismissive. Acknowledge the issue or, if you can, turn it into a positive. That shows you aren't trying to hide anything. For instance, "We are aware of the community's concerns about x and take them very seriously..." In fact, the strategy even works well during job interviews. If an interviewer asks, "What’s the biggest mistake you ever made?" you might respond, "I regret that I didn’t get into this profession earlier, because I love it."
Answer questions of fact. If you are asked a yes/no or factual question, your bridge can answer it head on. Which is why it's so important to come prepared. For example, if you're asked, "Did your company make a major acquisition last year," your bridge might be, "Yes, we did." If you’re asked, "What were your employee engagement scores last year?" you might say "9 out of 10." And if you get a question premised on a belief you know to be untrue, take the time to politely correct it, acknowledging where the misunderstanding might have come from.
Create a context. If you're asked about an issue or problem, set it in a larger context. For example, if you're a transportation executive and are asked about the transit problems in your city, you might begin with, "All North American cities are suffering from outdated infrastructure, and we're no exception."
Having bridged from the question, now deliver your message. Every leader has a set of key ideas he or she wants to get across, and Q&A settings are just as—if not more—effective platforms for them as formal speeches are.
Let’s say you're asked about your group’s performance for the year. Your bridge might be, "I’m glad you asked"—which shows empathy—and your message might be, "because we've had a great year." If you're asked about a new strategy in the works, your message can be, "It’s on time and we're looking forward to announcing details next month."
Once you put forward your message, offer compelling evidence in its favor. These points will form the more detailed substance of your answers, and you can think of them chronologically. If your message is, "I'm confident we will win this contract," you can follow with the two or three reasons for your confidence.
It’s even helpful to use "first" "second" and "third" as verbal tags, so the audience hears the structure of your case. Three is a good number, but you can have two or four points as well, depending on the material you have on hand.
As you conclude your answer, call upon your audience to act. If you're a politician, you might not be so blunt as to say, "Vote for me," but you might say, "I'm confident the American people will go to the polls knowing that we are the party that can restore economic prosperity." The key is to sound inclusive and ask for your listeners to engage with you based on what they've just heard. A business leader might ask her team to "keep up the great work that has made us so successful this year."
The Q&A isn't always a gentle format. Most of the time, you can expect at least a few questioners to be tough on you. Brace yourself, and know how to avoid the traps.
One trap is a question that implies something that isn't true. Correct what's been said by saying, for example, "The number is actually double that." And if the incorrect assumption is a negative (and it usually is), don't repeat it—correct the questioner by stating the positive.
Questions that takes the form of a statement are extremely common during Q&As and are another type of trap. Usually you can reframe audience members' own speeches as questions, focusing on a point you'd like to answer. Say, "As I understand your question, you're asking whether..." But don’t give the stage back to your questioner or ask them to clarify. Chances are they’ll be just as obtuse the second time around.
A third trap is a question filled with inflammatory words. In these instances, avoid the temptation to go head-to-head or respond aggressively. Reply cooly and dispassionately. In your answer, don't repeat any of the negative language that's been used. Simply take the high ground and deliver like a leader.
Follow these strategies, and you'll get your message across and shine as a leader, no matter what sorts of questions you're asked during Q&As.