How to Respond to Tough Questions

By: Ed Barks

Part of being an executive is facing the occasional hardball question from a member, staffer, or reporter. These tactics can help you take some of the bite out your interrogators while giving them the answers they're looking for.

Many association executives spend much of the day answering questions—questions from reporters, public officials, colleagues, workers, and others.

Executives are sources of expertise, so it makes sense that they are the go-to people for answers. What doesn't add up, however, is that few executives devote sufficient thought to managing their responses.

Directing the path of a conversation is vital in any professional discussion. Failure to do so runs the risk of disclosing confidential or damaging information. Of equal importance, guiding the conversation keeps you on your desired message path. That's where some advanced Q&A techniques can help keep executives on point.

Before reviewing some of these methods, let's set one ground rule: I do not advocate "spin." That is a tactic for losers who try to ham-handedly change the direction of a conversation with a distinct lack of skill or tact. Winning communicators acknowledge each question and treat it with respect while continuing to advance the dialogue in their desired direction.

Building the Bridge

Success in Q&A situations is built through strategies like "bridging." For example, let's say I'm speaking before an audience of association executives when a skeptic confronts me with this hardball: "I think every question has a right or wrong answer. Why can't I just answer everything literally?" My message-driven response might look like this:

  • Acknowledgement: "It's true that most of us are accustomed to answering questions literally."
  • Bridging phrase: "Let me suggest a more effective way to communicate."
  • Message: "We're here today to learn how to succeed when dealing with reporters and delivering winning presentations. Replying to each question in a message-oriented fashion helps me fulfill my bargain with you and gives you the information you came here expecting to get."

A note of caution before you and your fellow executives and spokespeople begin to use this technique: Bridging is a new communications construct for many, so devote plenty of time to practicing this valuable approach before future Q&A exchanges.

Sneak Peeks and Deflections

The "sneak peek" is an added tactic that is quite straightforward to use. Simply give your questioner a peek around the corner by ending your sentence with expressions like "And that's not all" or "I can give you lots of examples." The next question you hear may well be "What examples?"

Deflection is another helpful Q&A method. Here, you display a verbal stop sign when dealing with antagonistic questions. Lead with a phrase such as "In fact …" or "The reality is …" then move right back to the most appropriate portion of your message.

What happens when you don't have the answer readily at hand? No one can be expected to have every detail at the ready. In instances like this, explain that you do not have that bit of information at your fingertips, offer to get the specifics to your questioner, and (this is the important part) move right to the segment of your message that best addresses the general topic of the question.

Bridging, the sneak peek, and deflection are all designed as aids to help you continue to move the conversation back to your message. They work even when you are confronted with hostile, off-point, or dumb questions. Familiarize yourself with these techniques, practice them, and put them to good use the next time you find yourself in a tough Q&A situation.

For further information on effective Q&A strategies, read "Does Anybody Have Any Questions for My Answers? The 411 on Q&A" [PDF] and "Sneak Peeks and Deflections: Two Often Ignored Media Interview Techniques Every Executive Needs to Know" [PDF].

Ed Barks zeroes in on the messages and skills that executives need on a daily basis, giving them added opportunities for career advancement and realization of long-term business goals. He is president of Barks Communications, author of The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations, and a member of the National Press Club's Board of Governors. To learn more, visit www.barkscomm.com. Phone: 540-955-0600; Email: [email protected]

Ed Barks

Ed Barks zeroes in on the messages and skills that executives need on a daily basis, giving them added opportunities for career advancement and realization of long-term business goals. He is president of Barks Communications, author of The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations, and a member of the National Press Club's Board of Governors. Visit www.barkscomm.com to learn more.