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10 Tips to Handle Difficult Questions During Your Presentation

Working with CEOs and other leaders preparing for their presentations, I find that one of their greatest concerns is how to handle questions that might arise during or at the conclusion of their presentations.

This was confirmed for me when I was interviewed recently by Inc. Magazine for an article on how to effectively answer questions.

You can read the article here: 7 Surefire Tips to Ace You Next Q & A.

To supplement this I wanted to give you a deeper perspective including 10 quick tips on answering difficult questions.

Why do you think we are all 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 I 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 in media training and speech coaching: To handle questions effectively, you must be prepared, listen carefully, be present inthe moment, and answer with confidence.

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

1) Do not attack the questioner
During an earnings call on May 3, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was asked a question on capital expenditures from a financial analyst. It is a relevant topic for a company that has yet to make a profit. Nonetheless, Musk responded, "Excuse me. Next. Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?"

Though he apologized in a later call, Musk showed the damage that can be done when we attack the questioner to avoid answering legitimate questions. Do your best to avoid picking on your questioners.

2) 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.

3) 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.” 

4) 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.
 
5) 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 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?
 
6) 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.budget

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.
 
7) 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.
 
8) 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.
 
9) 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.

10) 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 are prepared to address the questions.

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

I really enjoy hearing your stories. If you want to share your thoughts with me, please visit my contact page to send me a message, and don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter, Sunday Coffee.

5 Ways to Avoid Work Burnout

Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have –– you.

Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


As summer comes to an end here in the U.S., many of us will enter the fall reinvigorated and ready to strongly finish the year.
 
But if you’re like many of my clients, your summer wasn’t as peaceful as it could’ve been and the rest of the year poses continuing challenges for your emotional and physical well-being.

You may be feeling burned out, and you’re not alone. Research shows that significant numbers of workers suffer from severe stress related to their jobs, with almost 80 percent reporting that they “regularly experience physical or psychological symptoms caused by stress.”
 
Even as the job market in the U.S. continues to thrive, giving workers options to move to better jobs, workplace stress is continuing to take its toll.
 
Stress has increased, as workdays have become 24/7 with global responsibilities and unlimited communication access through email, calls, and texts. The harmful effects of constant work in overdrive are visible everywhere, at every level of organizations.
 
Elon Musk burnout
The recent burnout of genius innovator Elon Musk serves as a tale of warning. In case you’re not aware of him, Musk is the CEO simultaneously of two major companies – electric carmaker Tesla and rocket company Space X. His vision is to colonize Mars to give the human race options to survive if Earth becomes uninhabitable.

I love Musk and view him as a modern-day Thomas Edison. Musk’s vision and energy have seemed boundless since he started Tesla in 2003.
 
But his recent public behavior has proven he is all too human. Working self-professed 120-hour weeks to achieve auto production goals he set for the public company Tesla, Musk began acting erratically, particularly on Twitter: he accused a diver, who helped save Thai boys from a cave, of being a pedophile; personally attacked short sellers of Tesla’s stock; and, most harmful, Tweeted while driving to the airport that he had secured funding to take Tesla private.
 
Musk’s statement drove up the company’s stock, but apparently was news to Tesla’s board. His claims triggered a federal investigation as a possible violation of securities law as well as private lawsuits.
 
This led to the seemingly indestructible Musk’s tearful interview with the New York Times last week, in which he shared the physical and emotional effects of business stress on his life.
 
Musk’s travails should serve as a warning to leaders and other high achievers who often position themselves as superheroes able to thrive under massive stress with only a few hours of sleep.
 
The truth is that we are all human and sooner or later, unabated stress may result in mental errors, emotional breakdownsand depression, or severe health problems, among others.
 
The phrase, “Sharpen the Saw” in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to a carpenter who uses a saw continuously so that the saw becomes dull and doesn’t cut properly. As the saw must be sharpened regularly to be effective, so must we take care of ourselves to be “sharp.”
 
Here are five tips for keeping yourself sharp and avoiding job burnout:
 
1) Take a personal audit: It all starts with awareness. You really can’t deal with a problem until you acknowledge it and understand its depths. How are you doing? Are you stressed out all of the time? Are you unable to relax or focus? Sometimes we have blind spots and need to ask others whether they see the warning signs of stress and potential burnout.
 
2) Balance your diet and exercise: I’m not going to go into detail because there’s no lack of information available on these practices; rather, there’s a lack of mindset and execution. The evidence is clear that whole foods are necessary to fuel for our body’s health and well-being; it’s also clear that exercise provides energy, stress relief, and mental and emotional clarity.
 
3) Set priorities: Too many organizations set long lists of “priorities” that must be accomplished – but when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Steve Jobs had been fired from Apple and when he made his return in 1997 to revive the failing company, he found that the company was producing a huge, confusing range of products, including twelve versions of the Macintosh computer.
 
Jobs reduced the entire product line by 70 percent, including a focus on just four versions of the Mac. This kind of focus has resulted in Apple becoming the most valuable company in the world.
 
Of course, this applies to us as individuals as well. Have you ever gone home after a long day of meetings and emails and realized you made no headway on what was important? I know I have. Every day, we face a choice of limited time and energy to accomplish our goals. Dedicated focus on real priorities is the key to real results.
 
4) Rest, relaxation, and sleep: The benefits of sleep have been well documented. The problem is that many of us don’t take the necessary steps to protect and promote effective sleep. Also, it’s critical to take breaks regularly and learn to relax. Many people find meditation and journaling in the morning to be helpful in starting their days.
 
5) Take a technology break: We are all distracted and, for many of us, compulsively addicted to our phones and other screens. This constant pinging in our subconscious, this yearning for drops of dopamine in our brains, doesn’t allow our stress levels to subside. We need to learn to control our smartphone addiction.
 
How about you?
 
How do you monitor and control your work stress?
 
Have you asked people you trust if they see signs of burnout in you?
 
Too many of us respond to work’s demands, like Pavlov’s dogs, without thinking. We need to step back, reflect and act in ways that will preserve our physical and emotional health while improving our results.
 
Give it a try. It might be the most important step you take this year.
 
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Just visit my contact page to share with me.

If you like this article, please share it with someone who might benefit from this advice. 

How 3 Billionaires Make Money with Communication

If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential. You have to learn to communicate in life – it’s enormously important.

–– Warren Buffett

 
Many people are curious as to how wealthy, celebrated leaders – such as self-made billionaires – achieved their success. While there may be untold secrets of the rich and famous, one of their secrets is on display in the public realm: a focus on clear, effective communication.
 
Warren Buffett, widely regarded as one of the most successful investors in history – currently the third-richest person in the world – considers communication skills priceless. 
 
Speaking to Columbia Business School students in 2009, Buffett made a semi-serious offer to invest in the students’ careers for 10 percent of their projected lifetime earnings. He told them he believed they could increase their lifetime earnings by 50 percent through learning effective communication skills.
 
One way to improve your own communication skills is to study the communication styles of successful leaders.
 
Let’s take a look at three billionaires at the top of their games in business and examine their perspectives on communication. All three, Buffett, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, clearly value communication and its role in business leadership. By examining their personal philosophies and techniques, we can gain insight into how their communication as leaders brought their visions to life. 
 
Warren Buffett: Be clear and transparent
Buffett is an advocate of using plain, clear language to explain finance to everyday investors and anyone wanting to understand the financial marketplace. Many industries, from finance to medicine, remain obtuse and confusing in their wording; often it seems to mask the truth. 
 
It can also be plain laziness that prevents succinct writing. If you’ve ever tried to compress a long document into a few hundred words, you know that simplicity takes hard work. 
 
Tell the truth
In 1998, Buffett wrote the preface to A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents: "I've studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I've been unable to decipher what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said."
 
He added, “In some cases, moreover, I suspect that a less-than-scrupulous issuer doesn’t want us to understand a subject it feels legally obligated to touch upon.” 
 
Buffett is renowned for writing frank and entertaining annual letters to shareholders that document successes but also prominently highlight investment failures by Buffett and his team.
 
Buffett lives his message of clarity and transparency in business communication.

Elon Musk: Kill the bureaucracy
Elon Musk is the revolutionary thinker and leader behind SpaceX and Tesla. I consider him our modern day Thomas Edison. From promoting sustainable energy to pursuing a human colony on Mars, he is a man of vision and action.
 
Musk believes that bureaucracy stifles action. In a memo to all Tesla employees a few years ago, Musk decried the corporate hierarchy that slows progress in most big companies, and encouraged employees to buck the chain of command at Tesla:
 
Instead of a problem getting solved quickly, where a person in one dept talks to a person in another dept and makes the right thing happen, people are forced to talk to their manager who talks to their manager who talks to the manager in the other dept who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.
 
Musk said this archaic approach enhances the power of the manager but degrades the power of the company to serve its customers. So Musk declared that:
 
Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager's manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else's permission.
 
Like Buffett, Musk also believes that plain, precise language is critical for success. Musk urges employees to avoid the jargon that prevents straightforward communication.
 
Drop the jargon
In a recent email to Tesla employees about plans to improve Model 3 production, Musk cautioned, “Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software, or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.”  
 
Jeff Bezos: Stop the PowerPoint
Jeff Bezos is the founder and CEO of the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.  While a New York Times article recently referred to him as “a brilliant but mysterious and cold-blooded corporate titan,” it is evident that there is a method to his madness, making him currently the richest man in the world.
 
Bezos is known for his annual letter to shareholders as well as Amazon's innovative leadership principles. In his 20th anniversary letter published this year, Bezos shared his preferred method of communication during meetings: well-reasoned memos. But they aren’t just any memos, they are narrative essays.
 
Write your narrative
In fact, Bezos has banned PowerPoint and slide presentations at Amazon meetings. Instead of relying on the crutch of slides, an executive must create a six-page “narratively structured” document spelling out a proposal or issue. The memos are read silently at the beginning of executive meetings as a type of “study hall” for 30 minutes before beginning the discussion. Not surprisingly, some of the memos are excellent, while others are lackluster. 
 
After acknowledging the difficulty of pinpointing the exact details that create an exceptional memo, Bezos came to an interesting conclusion:
 
Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!
 
As with any thoughtful communication, a great narrative requires a concerted effort. It’s like the story from Mark Twain – he apologized to his friend for writing a long letter because he “didn’t have the time to write a short one.”
 
It takes writing, rewriting, and more editing to create an effective narrative.
 
Excellent communication also takes time, effort and focus. I’ve worked with CEO’s and other senior leaders who put communication at the bottom of their priority list as they pursue activities with what they perceive as a “higher ROI (return on investment).”
 
Yet the truly enlightened and successful leaders I work with realize that communication is fundamental to the success of their businesses and their careers. As the president of one company said to me recently, “We can have the perfect strategy but if no one understands it, it’s worthless.”
 
So true. Bezos, Buffett, and Musk illustrate the importance of continuous improvement in your leadership communication.
 
Your communication
How about you?
 
Do you recall a time when you heard yourself saying, at work or at home, “that’s not what I meant!”?
 
Do you and your team use clear language or do you tend to use jargon? 
 
Do people in your organization maintain the hierarchy, or are they free to communicate with anyone that can help to solve a problem?
 
Your answers to these questions might not make you a billionaire, but you’ll be on your way to better results through clearer, more effective communication.

Just use our contact form to let me know what communication obstacle you run into in your organization.

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