You’re in a job interview, suddenly faced with an open-ended request, “Tell me about yourself.”
You’re in a meeting and your boss asks, “What’s happening with that project?”
You’re an executive on a call with analysts when a questioner says, “Fill us in on your quarterly results.”
If you want to sound like a leader—at any level—you need to respond to these challenges with clarity, confidence, and high ground thinking. Not “Um’s” Ah’s” or “That’s a good question.” No “Yeah, well…that depends.”
You’ll never score points if you start off with filler and end with confusion. Yet so many answers ramble and take us nowhere.
As I explain in my book Impromptu: Leading in the Moment, handling tough questions is at the heart of leadership communications. To sound like a leader and inspire confidence, build your answer around these four components:
1. Begin with A Grabber
Start every answer with a “grabber” or a hook that shows you’ve heard the question and want to engage the interviewer in a positive way.
The grabber is a bridge from the question. For example, if you are asked, “Tell me about yourself,” you might respond “I’d be happy to.” If the question is “How is Project X coming along?” you might reply, “It’s on track.” If you are asked for quarterly results, the grabber would be that number.
Note that these grabbers respond to the question but do not provide a full answer. They bridge from the query and do so in a confident way.
2. Present Your Message
Every question deserves a clear, focused answer, and the second component of your response should be your message. It captures in one sentence the point you want to make.
In the job interview question above—”Tell me about yourself”—you have already replied “I’d be happy to.” Now for your message: “I thrive on creative projects.” If you’re answering the question “How is Project X coming along?” and your grabber is “It’s on track,” your message might be: “We have already found ways to reduce costs by 40%.”
If you’ve been asked for quarterly figures and your grabber gives the number, your message might be, “We’ve achieved those results because we pivoted in the face of challenging circumstances.” When answering a factual question, you need a message that transcends the fact.
3. Add Proof Points
With a message you are miles ahead of the many speakers who have no message. Now you have to support that message with proof points.
So let’s say your message in a job interview is “I thrive on creative projects.” Now give the reasons you say that: “1. In university I studied graphic design at a top school. 2. I love nothing better than working on campaigns that include a strong design element. 3. My portfolio is full of examples that have earned me and my firm design awards.” To organize your thoughts, it’s best to introduce these points with “First,” “Second,” “Third,” etc.
If your message is, “We have already found ways to reduce costs by 40%,” your proof points will be organized around ways: “The first way,” “The second way,” and “The third way.”
If you are developing the message about pivoting in the face of challenging circumstances, you might organize your proof with, “The challenge we faced,” and “Here’s how we responded.” In other answers use a chronological pattern, as in “In the past….” “Today…” and “Looking ahead …”
Indicate your structural patterns with the key words suggested here. After all, it’s important that your audience “hear” your structure.
4. End with a Call to Action
The final component is the call to action. Every answer must have purpose—it should result in action. Otherwise, why speak?
In a job interview, your call to action could be: “Is there anything more you need from me to bring me on board?” or, “I look forward to hearing from you about the next steps.” The call to action in a job interview shows your confidence as a candidate. It makes clear you assume there is a next step as you move toward being hired.
In a project update your call to action might be: “Stay tuned: We’ll have more good news in the next few weeks.” Or “My team and I are excited about the impact this project will have.” In answering the question about quarterly results, your call to action might be: “Looking ahead we see the same strong performance during the balance of this fiscal year.”
A call to action shows that you as a leader not only have a message, but you are delivering a message that is actionable.