The Top 10 Myths About Handling Tough Questions

By Jerry Weissman

You've told a compelling story, you've designed dazzling PowerPoint slides, you've delivered your message confidently, and now you open the floor to questions. Unless you manage this part of your presentation effectively, all of your other efforts will go up in smoke. You must stand tall in the line of fire and learn how to handle tough questions.

Advice about how to handle Q & A abounds, ranging from media training to mock practice sessions. Unfortunately, along the way, a number of counterproductive myths have evolved. Here are the truths behind the top 10 myths and their effective solutions.

10. Make a list of potential tough questions and prepare an answer for each. Preparation is a good idea, but this approach is misguided. People in public don’t ask questions as written in advance. Most audiences ask questions in a convoluted or rambling manner. Furthermore, this preparatory approach produces a long complex list that forces the presenter into a mental scramble to match the question as asked and the answer as written. The scramble inevitably produces misfiring, often leading to the wrong answer. Solution: Prepare a short list of key issues, and an equally short position statement for each: Bullets rather than sentences; concepts rather than script.

9.  If someone asks a question about a subject you’ve covered, refer back to the slide. This is a bad idea because it implies that your questioner is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, you will appear awkward as you search for the earlier slide. Solution: State your answer … without the slide … as if you never covered it, and do it succinctly. Due to the rapid-fire dynamics of Q&A sessions, you must never look back. Keep moving forward.

8.  Compliment your questioner by saying, “That was a good question,” or “I’m glad you asked that.” Will you then insult the next questioner by saying, “That was a bad question,” or “I’m not at all happy you asked that.”? Solution: Make no value judgments or characterizations of any question. Simply respond to the central issue in the question.

7.  You don’t have to answer irrelevant questions. There is no such thing as an irrelevant question. You might consider it irrelevant, but the questioner doesn’t, nor does the audience, which is inclined to side with one of their own. Group psychology is at work in Q&A sessions: One versus many. If you disdain or duck any question, you will alienate your questioner and your entire audience. Solution: If they ask it, you will answer it.

6.  Use every question as an opportunity to deliver your message. This is only a partial myth. You can and should use every opportunity to deliver your own message, but only after you have earned the right to do so by first providing an answer to the question you were asked. Politicians characteristically perpetuate this myth by ignoring the question and launching into their own message. Politicians are expected to do this. You cannot. Solution: Provide an answer for every question; only then can you swing for the seats.

5.  If you don’t know the answer, shift to a different subject. Wrong! Nobody expects you to be a walking encyclopedia of minutiae. Solution: Say you don’t know, but promise to get the answer to your questioner later. Be proactive. Ask for a business card. Of course, if the question is about a subject that is central to your story, you cannot plead ignorance or you will appear evasive. In this case, be sure you are prepared, as in the solution for Myth 10.

4.  If you get a multiple question you must answer all the questions. If you try this, you might forget one question and then, as far too many presenter, far too often, do, say, “What was your other question?” This sends the message that you are suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Solution: Pick only one question, respond, and then turn to the questioner and say, “You had another question.” They will either re-state their question or say, “That’s okay, you answered it.” Either way, you are off the hook. Handle one question at a time.

3.  Repeat the question so that everyone can hear it. If the question is challenging, such as “Why is your product so expensive?” and you repeat it by saying, “Why is our product so expensive?” you would then be admitting that your product is expensive. Solution: Strip out the value judgment by paraphrasing, “How did we arrive at the price?” If the question is “What makes you think you can survive in a crowded market dominated by larger players?” strip out the value judgment, “How do we compete?”

2.  If a question addresses a confidential matter, say, “I’m not at liberty to answer,” or “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” Either option sounds evasive. Solution: Attribute the confidentiality to a position outside your purview, e.g., legal, security, or corporate policy. For example, “Our legal counsel has advised us to withhold comment,” or “Our company policy is to not make forward-looking statements.”

1.  Answer the question you want to answer. Wrong! This is the most pervasive of all the myths. You must answer the question you were asked. Solution: The same as for Myths 6 and 7: If they ask it, you will answer it, even if you are guilty as charged. However, once you have answered, you can shift gears to the positive and state your message.

For instance, take the question above, “What makes you think you can survive in a crowded market dominated by larger players?” You effective response can be, “You’re right; we are a small player in a crowded market dominated by larger players. But because we are a pure play, we can focus all our attention on our target sector and, because we are small, we are more agile and can rapidly shift to meet changes in the market. Therefore, I am confident that we can not only compete, but win.”

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