Answering tough questions in any presentation is a challenge. But doing it opposite a political opponent, surrounded by TV cameras, in front of a viewing audience of tens of millions...well, that's the pinnacle of challenging.
What can we learn from Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden's exchange last night in the Vice Presidential debate?
WHAT YOU WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT
One way to handle a tough question is to not answer the question directly. To Gwen Ifill's question about what each candidate's administration would not be able to do because of the economic crisis, both Palen and Biden offered instead what they would do, in effect not answering the question.
Upside is they each placed their key messages in front of the audience [again]. Downside is they appeared evasive or worse, clueless, suggesting that they would still be able to accomplish all their initiatives despite the meltdown on Wall Street.
Although this is a common technique in political presentations, I caution against avoiding direct answers in most business presentations. It runs the risk of alienating the questioner as well as others in the audience and makes the presenter seem evasive.
WHAT YOU DEFINITELY WANT TO DO
In answering questions, your demeanor and how you project can be as important as what you say. Here are some suggestions:
- Always be respectful of the questioner. Unless you are absolutely certain that the question is a joke or a blatant attempt to trip you up, give the questioner the benefit of the doubt and answer. [Check out Lisa Braithwaite's great advice, "When Audience Members Attack."] There is no surer way to alienate the questioner [and perhaps a significant portion of the audience] than by making fun of him or putting him down.
- Make eye contact with the questioner and actively listen while she is asking the question. Resist the temptation to use this time to prepare your answer. It will be very evident if you are not paying attention. In the debate, while Ifill was asking the questions, both Biden and Palin scribbled notes, clearly preparing the points they wanted to make. This may be appropriate when a question is complex or multi-part, but when you are specifically answering an individual [versus a TV audience], it is better to look at the person while she is speaking.
- Pause a moment before answering. If you rush into your answer, possibly before the questioner has finished speaking, it again is evident that you weren't really listening. You may actually give an incorrect answer because you made an assumption part way through the question that you knew what the questioner was asking. As James Humes says in Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, "A deliberate pause before you talk adds weight and wisdom to both your actual answer and the audience's perception of it."
- Rephrase a long-winded or confusing question..."So what I hear you saying is..." This allows you to check that you understood the question properly and lets you articulate the question so the audience understands it.
- In the business presentation, a great technique is to redirect a question to the audience..."What do the rest of you think about that?"..."Who would like to share their experience with that situation?" This does a couple of things: it gives you a moment to get your thoughts together and it involves the audience.
- You've heard this one a million times, but it's worth repeating. Don't be afraid to say you don't know. Flubbing your way through an answer is obvious to the audience, doesn't satisfy the questioner and can seriously damage your credibility. Needless to say this is one technique we didn't see in the debate!
Although the majority of you likely will never have to stand on a stage answering tough questions in front of a national TV audience, sometimes those business audiences may seem as challenging.
Getting comfortable answering tough questions will help you meet that challenge.
What are some techniques you've used to handle tough questions?