August 24, 2020

Answering questions

Say what you want, not what you don’t want – even if you don’t know the answer!

Hello Leaders!
Thank you for reading this, the fifth edition of my LeaderLike You! Newsletter, and thank you to those who have sent me their success stories or been in touch over the last 4 weeks. 

Please feel free to send your business success stories to and you may feature in future newsletters!

Sharing tried and tested leadership and communication techniques with you, the LLY community, is a real pleasure. With over 30 years of experience in the field, I feel it important to inspire others, as I have been inspired.

This month’s topic was inspired by presentation techniques I’ve recently witnessed in the media (it’s not all bad you know!). If you have a presentation on the horizon, take 5 minutes to read and assimilate my leaderlike suggestions below. It may change the way you present forever!

When 2 parties communicate, there is a 2-way, back and forth, dance happening, where messages are sent and received from both sides. When we break down how we communicate, we understand that it’s a complex cycle of sent, deciphered and received messages. Like a dance, it happens in sync.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw

We all know that active listening techniques are vital to communication; this includes making eye contact, watching body language, responding appropriately with comments, questions, paraphrasing, summarizing to confirm main points and giving your full attention to understand what’s being said.
The same cycle occurs when making presentations. At different intervals, the presentation itself contains moments of one-way communication, with no audience interruption, and there are hopefully moments when audience interaction is encouraged, bringing in two-way communication. It’s a slower dance than 1:1 communication.
From experience, presenters can do a great job of their actual presentation and lose it on Q&A! Why? For one reason the presentation is the predictable element, generally in a controlled environment, with some practice and a script! 

What isn’t predictable are the questions the audience may ask afterwards or during the Q & A. People tend to put all their time and effort into the contents of the presentation and far too little on the back end – the Q&A session.

“If you’re too comfortable, it’s time to move on. Terrified of what’s next? You’re on the right track.”
Susan Fales Hill

Here are a few tips:

My suggestion is to make your very own NQL before the presentation. What is an NQL? It’s the nasty question list, meaning you prepare the worst, the toughest and hardest questions you can imagine may be asked. The likelihood is that you will not get asked the toughest questions. With a little preparation, when you do receive a question, your brain will think, “Oh that’s an easy one” and will be ready to give a prepared answer. I suggest, as standard practice, you put 3-5 questions into the NQL and learn the answers prior to your next presentation.
Handling questions is often one of the biggest fears for presenters, however big or small the audience! “What will happen if I get a question I don’t immediately know the answer to?”
My advice is this; never “sandbag” – which means trying to say something and mumble out a few sentences and hope they don’t notice you didn’t answer the question correctly. The audience might come back and dig deep.

Frankly said, if you don’t know, you should be honest and admit so. Remember that audiences want you to be authentic and be congruent, this will result in success. It’s not the perfection of the presentation people judge, it’s your ability to show you are human and roll with the punches!
Imagine you get stumped by a question such as: “Why are revenues decreasing in Q2 and not in Q3 on the XYZ product range?” and what you prepared was on the macro level and not micro level. Do not quiver and respond, “Uh I don’t know!”

Create a response strategy – a few of these could feel like brave moves:

  • Slowly repeat the question using downward inflection at the end of the sentence to keep gravitas and composure: “So, why are revenues decreasing in Q2 and not in Q3 on the XYZ product range?” Take the time to reflect, seriously.
  • Pause and say nothing for a few seconds, look at the PowerPoint visual using the computer gesture (check out my video The Power of Gestures – click here. Let the audience know you are taking a moment to think – “Hmm, let me think, I should know about this…” and say:
  • “I  prepared a higher level of granularity. It’s not immediately coming to me and I don’t want to mislead you. Let me check my notes.”
  • If nothing comes to you then, s-l-o-w-l-y, and I mean slowly, walk over and check your notes. If the answer is not in your notes, and if anyone from your team is in the room, ask if they know slowly and without putting them on the spot, or ask the audience. “Just checking with the folks in my team, jump in if you have that information.”
  • If nobody has it – then offer the questioner options, which are also guided by context, rank, and hierarchy. Here are a few which even wrap in some empathy as well: “Mike, sounds like this might be important and even frustrating not to know right now, so here are a few options – I can get that information over the break coming up in a few minutes, or, could pause the meeting and provide the information now. What’s best for you?” – (Word of caution, when saying this, be careful not to sound flippant, passive aggressive or irritated).

At another level, I recommend the following 3 additional presentation skills techniques to master:

Hooking – this literally means you hook the audience into asking you a question and thus, receive the questions YOU are prepared for, when you want them. Starts like this “… and we have statistics that prove this works.” Well, the question will be, “So what are these marvelous statistics?” 

Flagging – this signals the KEY sound bite to the audience. This, when said with the right tone and voice, leads them to take notes and write things down. Should sound like this:
“… This is the important component:” or, “This is really important …” “There are 3 key things you need to know …” Remember:  “The bottom line is..” – signals you are done.

Bridging –  Imagine you are on an island, and that island is what you presented and hold knowledge about. Imagine the next question is off the island, in the middle of the sea and is not on subject. Bridging techniques take you out of the open sea to a ‘safe island’ of knowledge. Here are a few bridging words you may want to learn:

  • “Building on what you just said…” (then add your own idea even if totally on another track)
  • That’s not my area of expertise, you would be interested in knowing …”
  • “While (what you just said) is certainly important, let’s remember that (what you want to talk about)”
  • “Interesting approach and thought, and even more interesting might be…”
  • “What’s important to remember is…” or a simpler form “What’s more important…” 
  • “That’s a strong point, and what is equally important is…”
  • “What your people need to know is…”
  • “Let me answer by saying…”

At the next occasion you have a presentation to give, remember the importance of investing time in the Q&A. The last things you say, are sometimes what an audience retains long-term about you and the message you delivered!
Be leaderlike when presenting. Do not overlook the importance of preparation for the Q & A session!

Stay at peace with yourself, at peace with others and be leaderlike.
Look forward to bringing you a story next month,