9 aspects to take into account when answering questions
You are making a presentation or just having a conversation. You think you have everything under control and then comes the question.
Suddenly, do you feel unsettled, not knowing what to say, on the defensive maybe?
Is it even worse when you know there will be questions, in a meeting for instance?
We often prepare everything we can when we know we need to present or discuss something. However, questions are often something that we do not think too much about.
As a result, a confident performance can turn into complete disaster because we suddenly lose all our composure. It is why job interviews are so hard to handle: they are question after question after question.
How you handle answering questions is even more important than the presentation you are giving for instance. It will make the difference between an average and good to great performance. It is when you can really express your confidence, assertiveness, or lack of.
The presentation or any structured part is usually prepared thoroughly. Begin doing it if you don’t invest enough time in the preparation of the structured part. In contrast, during questions it is more of you, your abilities that are on show.
So read on for tips on how to answer questions in a professional, confident manner.
1 – Why do you ask questions?
First of all, I would like you to think about the purpose you try to achieve when asking a question.
We usually ask questions to get a decision, a commitment, a clarification or to obtain new information we do not have.
It is probably unlikely that others will have widely different purposes. A lot of questions show that others are curious and this is the way it should be.
For sure, you also will have the awkward question. It will happen that some people will try to undermine you.
Others will ask questions to promote themselves without contributing really to what is discussed. Or they want to expose what you do not know.
Remember that in most cases, people have a genuine interest when asking questions. Keep this in mind to help you relax when answering questions.
In the remainder of this post I will explain how best to handle any type of questions.
2 – About preparing some answers
As in everything else, preparation is always key. It is essential that you are on top of your subject. However the time spent trying to prepare answers is in most cases not time well spent.
You just can’t prepare and know every questions you might get and their answers.
Then you will try to remember and regurgitate your already made answers. It will not sound natural.
You will begin to lose your confidence if you can’t remember the answer you prepared. Finally, you will also get destabilised when a question you hadn’t thought about comes up.
3 – Pause before answering
Do not jump into your answer right away. Take just a few seconds to ensure you understood the question and gather what you will say.
If you need more time before answering, it is absolutely fine.
Just say so. Say “It is very interesting. I need to think a bit before beginning to answer.” Or something similar. People will wait.
4 – Answer the question
This sounds absolutely obvious. However, how many times have you seen this happening? How many times have you heard answers that bore the most tangential relationship with the question? You will even find some articles telling you explicitly it is OK to answer a question with something that has no or very little relationship with the question.
This is not the advice I would give you: answer the question in a straightforward way, that the person having asked the question has the clear answer he/she expects. Do not try to elude the question or talk about something else.
Many times people have come to me after a presentation to say how much they appreciated that I answered questions directly.
We will see in another section about the awkward questions.
5 – Adapt your answer to the expectations of your audience
You usually read that your answer has to be concise, to the point. It is right that it makes it clearer. However it is not always the expectation.
For instance, if it is with your team or an audience already knowing the background, you can use a short answer. A lot of people, particularly in many Western societies, like to keep events on time, follow the agenda, get to the point and move on. A long answer in these circumstances may seem like unprofessional.
In contrast, some audiences will require a lot more background explanations. They may also rely a lot more on what is not said in your answer but what you convey with your tone of voice, body gestures, facial expressions. In other words they may feel at best short-changed, at worst disrespected if your answer is brief.
For instance, at a weekly team meeting, my answers will be relatively short with just the minimum context around it. If somebody in the room is not familiar with the context, I will give a bit more of it, without burdening the other attendees who already know about the context.
When I answer a question from somebody completely unfamiliar, I will usually introduce a bit more extra information to ensure the person completely understands my answer.
A good answer is only good in the eye of the person having asked the question so you need to get to understand what is expected in your particular context.
6 – Do not elaborate if it is not necessary
Sometimes, a yes or no is enough to answer a question, especially if the person asks a closed question, suited to a yes and no answer. To follow up on the point above, some people will think that elaborating is a waste of time.
Your answer must always add value to what is discussed. Judge what value you add with anything you may say in your answer and don’t say it if it does not add value.
7 – It is OK not to understand the question
The formulation of the question may be confusing. You might be in a noisy environment. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of circumstances that may prevent you from grasping the question.
Do not try to guess the question. Instead, ask for clarification. Do not ask the person to repeat the question.
You will end up with the same words, which will not improve your understanding. Give your understanding of the question and ask the person if it is correct.
Once you have understood the question, then you can answer confidently.
Nobody understands everything the first time. I used this technique a lot when I first moved to an English speaking country.
My comprehension of English wasn’t really good at the time and I needed to regularly ask people clarification on what they said, not just questions.
8 – It is OK not to know the answer
You cannot know everything, even on your subject. Nobody will expect you to have all the answers. If you don’t know an answer, first of all admit it.
Never ever make an answer up. People will discover at some point that the answer was incorrect.
First, acknowledge you don’t have the answer. Then, you have several options. Offer to look for the correct answer and to go back to the person with the answer.
You can offer to discuss further offline. On some occasions, it may be an idea to involve the audience. Someone might bring something interesting to the conversation.
Whatever option you decide to go with, people will be more impressed by and grateful for your honesty than an incorrect answer.
9 – Dealing with irrelevant or rude questions
Irrelevant questions are questions that have nothing to do with what is discussed. Even if the question in itself is interesting and you have an answer, it does not mean you have to answer it.
First you can ask the person to clarify what relationship the question has with the topic discussed. Even better, begin by saying that you do not see how the t contributes to the topic and that you will be happy to answer if it does.
It is not unusual in this situation that other people will support you and you will end up not answering this particular question. It is the only time I would advise not to answer directly a question. You can offer to discuss the topic offline.
Some people will ask a question just to undermine you and in the process may be rude and hurt you. When this is the case, acknowledge it. Let the person know how the way the question was asked made you feel.
Do not reply back harshly and escalate the situation. Then you can answer politely the question if relevant. When a person tries to undermine your data, reassert your expertise and ask the person to then provide the information he/she thinks is appropriate.
If the person is just trying to show off, they should back up quickly. If they are correct, acknowledge it and thank them for their contribution. If necessary, take the whole matter and discuss it privately to resolve the issue and avoid it re-happening.
If you follow the strategies presented in the points above, you will appear confident at answering questions. Practise some of the points, such as pausing, clarifying with friends so that it becomes something natural to do. In the accompanying video, I will develop more some practical aspects and examples.