Think Fast: 10 Ways To Be Prepared For Any Question

The next time someone asks you a question that throws you for a loop, use one of these 10 strategies to help you think on your feet.
November 26, 2013

One of the hardest parts of delivering an effective presentation is dealing with questions. When done well, it's an opportunity to boost your credibility and to develop trust. Done poorly, it can tarnish the impression you make and put a huge dent in your credibility.

Being able to think on your feet, to gather your thoughts quickly and deliver your point convincingly, is an essential skill for anyone who needs to sell his or her ideas.

While we live largely in an unscripted world, there is much you can do to prepare yourself to think on your feet. Someone once said, "Good luck happens when preparedness meets opportunity." These 10 tips will help you handle questions without letting anyone see you sweat:

1. Listen Attentively

Listen carefully to the very end. Resist the temptation to start formulating an answer as soon as the person starts asking his or her question. In his book, In The Line Of Fire: How To Handle Tough Questions—When It Counts, Jerry Weissman mentions the teachings of the Zen master who says "empty your cup"—that is, empty your mind of all thought so you can receive what's being said. Let go of your speculations, and try to stay totally focused on the person asking the question. Concentrating on the question, rather than your answer, will result in a more thoughtful answer.

2. Focus On The Trigger Word

While listening to the question, focus on the trigger word that will dovetail with your mental database of anticipated questions. For example, say you're confronted with this statement: “I don’t believe there's enough evidence to show us the benefits you just mentioned.” The trigger word here is "evidence." If you didn't listen carefully for the trigger word, you might easily go off on a tangent and start repeating the benefits. Focusing on the trigger word will prompt you to talk about the research, customer testimonials and any other evidence that support your point. It shows the listeners that you heard their concern loud and clear and are addressing it directly, without beating around the bush. People respect this.

3. Always Give The Short Answer First

Give the quick answer first, then elaborate if questioners ask for more. Most of the time, they won’t. This tactic will force you to get to the point and will eliminate your chances of rambling on.

4. Know When To Stop

Belaboring the answer becomes pedantic. It can also make you appear less confident and in need of moral support. Answer concisely and move on. If people need further clarification, let them ask you. There is genuine power in this.

5. Don't Repeat A Negative Question

We've all been taught to repeat a question when you have a large audience to make sure everyone heard the question and to rephrase a question succinctly if it was long and rambling. However, it's important not to repeat an accusatory or negative question word for word. For example, instead of saying “The question is about the mess we caused with the new software program,” reword the statement to take the sting out of it by saying “The question is about the past issues with our new software system.”

6. Strengthen Your Weak Points

Anticipate questions that address any weaknesses in your argument or controversial aspects about what you're presenting. We often don’t spend the time to prepare for these types of questions; instead, we avoid them in hopes the audience won't detect the weak spots. However, you can be sure that if there's a weakness, someone will perceive it and question you about it. To borrow Churchill’s phrase, these questions target your presentation’s “soft underbelly.” Why make yourself vulnerable in this way? Do your homework to strengthen your argument, or at the very least, prepare some viable answers.

If there are members of the audience with whom you happen to have some interpersonal conflicts, keep in mind the words of sports coach John Heisman: “When you find your opponent’s weak spot, hammer it.” This type of thinking reflects an unfortunate reality of life. So why give anyone that opportunity? Rather than spend days being anxious about potential slings and arrows from a habitual offender, devote that energy to thinking about what contentious questions might come up and rehearse your answers.

7. Create A Few Slides For Some Answers

For complex questions, consider preparing a few slides ahead of time that might contain a diagram, chart, data, detailed analysis, visual or anything else that will serve to explain your point. Note the numbers of these slides so you can go to them quickly while you're answering the question. You can even say: "This question comes up frequently. I created a slide to help explain the issue better." Or, "I had a hunch this question might come up. Let me pull out a slide that will clarify the issue."

8. Use A Structure

The easiest way to handle your impromptu remarks in answer to a question is to have a structure or template in mind. Templates are easy to remember. Then all you have to do is quickly fit your points within the appropriate structure. Here are a few structures to help you out:

Use the rule of three. Let's say you're asked to elaborate about your business. You can describe your company in terms of past, present and future by saying a few words about your company history, your current offerings and your ideas for the future.

Use the PREP template. This is a popular template from Toastmasters. It involves four parts: P: Point—State your point to the question; R: Reason—Mention a reason for your point; E: Example—Give an illustration that supports your point; and P: Point —Reinforce or recap your main point.

Be an anchorman. Quickly organize your thoughts by following the anchorman's format and answering all, or part, of these six questions, as appropriate: who, what, where, when, why and how.

Pair costs and benefits. If you're asked a question that requires you to defend your costs, structure your points in terms of two buckets: costs and benefits. Always mention the concrete benefits.

9. Set Up A Company Database Of Answers

If you're delivering a presentation that prompts recurring questions about your company's services or products, set up a database of these frequently asked questions and answers. Enlist the help of key people in your company to answer the questions, and post them on your intranet for everyone’s reference. Encourage employees to keep adding new questions they receive from customers and their recommended answers.

10. Drop The Quest For Perfection

In Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up, Stanford University professor emerita Patricia Ryan Madison reminds us that life itself is an improvisation. Just show up and be yourself. One of her maxims is to dare to be average. We often fret about just the right word, or the most eloquent, or a cool turn of phrase. As improvisational theater pioneer Keith Johnstone put it, "Dare to be dull; what is ordinary to you is often a revelation to others."

Just focus on being authentic, on answering to the best of your knowledge and saying what you really think. Thinking on your feet starts with speaking from the heart.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd. and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Read more articles on leadership.

Photo: Getty Images