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How to Answer Tough Questions

We know from surveys that public speaking is the number one fear. From my work with hundreds of leaders every year, I can tell you that answering questions is a close second of serious fears.

Why are we so unnerved by the prospect of answering questions?

I believe there are many reasons for this fear, including:

Fear of the unknown. Virtually any question might be asked and we will be on the spot in a high-pressure situation.

Lack of preparation. Most people don’t actually prepare, or know how to prepare effectively for questions.

No real confidence in our positions, our answers or our ability to respond.

Over-imagining the difficulty of questions and assuming our questioners will be antagonistic.

Fear of failure. What if we can’t answer the question? Will I be embarrassed, ridiculed, rejected? Fired?

It may seem as if I’m being extreme with these reasons, but believe me, I am not. From my intimate work with leaders, all of these may underlie our feelings of exposure. You may have felt some yourself; I know I have.

Early in my career, I became a media spokesperson and found myself doing live interviews on local and national television or talking to crowds of reporters about controversial subjects. I would also speak at public meetings with sometimes-hostile crowds.

Those experiences taught me what I teach others today: To handle questions effectively, you must be prepared, listen carefully, be present in the moment, and answer with confidence.

Here are some tips to help you when questions put you on the spot:

Prepare and Rehearse

As I have written before, the best way to deal with any communication situation is to prepare as much as possible in advance. You can't anticipate every question that will come at you, but you can prepare for most of them. You can also be ready in a generic way for almost every type of question that will come your way.

Develop go-to messages

You should have an overriding theme –– the one thing you want people to remember about your presentation. I also recommend having three key points that will serve as your go-to messages.
 
For instance, if you’re doing a status update on a project, your theme might be, “Our product introduction is on target.” You support that theme with three main messages, such as “we are on budget, on schedule and initial sales are on plan.”
 
Pivot to your messages 

Whenever you’re asked a question, you should pivot back to your key messages that support your theme. It might feel odd repeating these messages, but it’s necessary, given peoples’ limited attention spans today. It will feel like repetition to you, but you’re really reinforcing your main theme.
 
Just don’t use exactly the same words as you say these messages: change it up by saying things a different way. Use different data, examples or stories to make your points. People won’t think of you as repeating yourself, they’ll think of you as someone who is clear on what you’re trying to communicate.
 
Make a written list 

I was trained in journalism in college and will share this formula reporters use to write news stories: In the first paragraph or “lede,” journalists are supposed to include the who, what, where, when, why and how, so that people get all the information they need up front. You can use the same approach to develop your list of questions.

Take your topic and write every related question you can think of that might come up. For instance, if you are presenting to management about your product introduction, then consider questions like:

What is the most important potential obstacle to success?

When will we see results from this new product?

Who is responsible for any delay in this product?
 
Add the toughest question
 

When you’re done writing your list of questions, there’s one more you need to add. I tell people to add the question that you don’t want to be asked.

All of us have a question that is the absolute toughest in our minds. It’s important to write that question down and also write down your best answer to get it out of your head and onto paper.
 
If you don’t write it down, it will be swimming in your subconscious during your presentation. You may just be thinking, “don’t ask that question, please don’t ask that question.” When the question is asked, your mind might go blank.
 
But if you’ve written down your answer—the best possible answer—you’ll feel more confident and ready to answer the toughest question.
 
Don’t get defensive

It’s important not to let people hit your emotional triggers when you’re answering questions. If that happens during a session and you get defensive, you lose. Maintain your confidence by maintaining your composure.
 
Don’t dwell on a negative questioner

When someone in a crowd, such as in a meeting, essentially heckles you by posing negative questions, it’s important not to let them steal the show. In other words, it’s okay to answer a question or two from that person, each time going to your key messages, but then move on. Turn your gaze and your head to someone else, another questioner, as soon as possible.
 
Don’t end your presentation on a negative question

Be sure to end your presentation on a positive note. You may have several negative questions in a row, but when you get to a positive question and you feel like things are wrapping up, it’s time to end your talk.
 
I recommend having two “closes” or final remarks for your talk. What I mean is, that first you summarize then open it up for questions and answers.

When the questions are over, hopefully ending on a positive question, again summarize with your theme and some of your key messages or call to action (your second “close”) so that people walk away with what you want them to remember.

Don’t Wait

The worst thing that people do is wait until the question is asked and then try to think of the answer -- under pressure -- and then smoothly give the answer.

That’s a really difficult feat to accomplish. It’s no wonder that we feel anxiety when we’re not ready to answer. Questions only become “tough” if you aren’t prepared for them, or if you’ve inflated them out of proportion in your mind.

In other words, even “tough” questions can be handled with confidence and grace, if you have the right mindset and have prepared to address the questions.


There is both art and science in answering live questions. Be patient with yourself. Like any other skill, answering questions takes focus, deliberate practice and repetition.

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 Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash