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Getting Grilled? How to Handle Tough Questions

Whether you're meeting with employees or speaking before a crowd of customers, you can learn to respond effectively to any question thrown your way.
November 11, 2015

As a business owner, you need to be able to influence people when you speak. You need to be able to persuade them to take action and they need to feel as if you're speaking directly to them, even when they're in a room full of other people. When you’re asked questions—especially the tough ones—in front of a large group of people, you’re going to have to convince everyone you can handle the pressure.

A key part of staying cool when you're in the spotlight and presenting yourself as a confident leader is knowing how to think on your feet. Also key: Understanding what you need to prepare for and what to think about while you’re speaking.

If you want to improve your speaking skills by delivering strong, coherent answers to the toughest questions that get thrown your way, test drive the following tips from communication coaches:

1. Do Your Prep Work

Great speakers often try to predict the questions they may be asked during speeches or presentations, but it’s a lot of work to memorize answers for every possible question you may get. Communication skills coach Carmine Gallo suggests organizing your questions into “buckets,”  or categories. This will help reduce the number of questions you have to prepare for.

Once you organize your questions into sections, Gallo says the next step is to create the best answer for each category. That way, no matter how a question is phrased or worded, you just have to listen for a specific “trigger” word or phrase to determine which bucket it belongs to, then use your prepared answer from that bucket. Make sure the answers you’ve prepared effectively deliver the main points you want to make and that your answers make sense regardless of how the questions are asked.

2. Ask Yourself Two Questions Before Responding

When you're speaking in front of a large gathering and an audience member asks you a difficult question, Your Coaching Matters co-founder Donna Stott says it's critical to quickly determine the answer to two key questions before you reply. Stott, who coaches real estate professionals, says knowing these answers can help you form the right answer.

  1. Who is asking the question? If you know who’s asking the question—customer, employee, supplier, investor, fellow business owner—you’ll know how to word your answer in a way that the audience can understand.
  2. Who is the actual audience? According to Stott, answering tough questions off the record or during an employee meeting is entirely different from the questions you may get at a press conference. For instance, the goal of the press is to write a story based on your remarks, so your answers should ideally provide them with key information (the who, what, where, when and why of your topic) so you're in control of your message. If you don't give them that information, they may find another way to get it—one that will be out of your control. When speaking to your employees, it's important to remember that it's not you against them. You probably want to make your staff feel that they're each a key part of your team, especially during a crisis situation.

If you think about the questions both parties may ask you and why, you can prepare your answers to try to satisfy the needs of each group

3. Whatever You Do, Don’t Lie

If you aren't sure of the answer to a question you've been asked, it’s best to not make something up. Honesty often matters, even if that means admitting you don't know the answer. Instead of lying, Stott recommends a script that goes something like this:

“What’s your name? Joe? Well, Joe, that's a great question, and let me make sure I have it right. What you’re asking is XYZ, and that’s for the purpose of ABC. Do I have that right? Well, Joe, here’s the truth. I don’t have the exact answer to that, and I don’t want to make a mistake by guessing. That’s not how I run things, and I’m not going to give you a flippant or half answer when I simply don’t know the right one based on [numbers I’m waiting for or someone I need to speak with first, etc.] Your question is important … important enough to get it right. So how about this: Let me get your contact information when I'm finished here, and I’ll figure out the answer and get back to you."

4. Pause to Give Yourself Time to Think

Moving quickly from one question to the next can get exhausting and confusing. Stott suggests you give yourself a few seconds to think before you answer a new question, and try to determine what the person asking the question really wants to know. Repeat [the question], and ask something to clarify it,” she says. “Asking a question before answering gives you clarity and a few moments to think.”

And don’t be afraid of the pause—it may prevent you from speaking too soon or wording your answer in a way that won’t get your point across.

5. Wrap Things Up Respectfully

When it’s time to end the question and answer portion of your speech, it's essential that you first acknowledge the importance of your audience’s questions and time and make it clear that your time is up. You don’t want to lose control of the situation, so consider saying something like this:

"I can see how important this is to all of you. And I think we’ve pretty much covered it as best we can in this venue. If there are other questions you have for me, I want us to be able to get to them as well. So if we need to spend more time on this topic, let’s schedule a sit-down and go over things in more detail.”

So the next time you have tough questions to answer, prepare ahead of time, think about what people really want from their questions, understand your audience and build a level of trust with them by being honest and respectful. By employing these tips, you can learn to handle even the toughest questions thrown your way.

Read more articles on leadership.

This article was originally published on November 7, 2014.

Photo: Getty Images