Too many CEOs and senior executives turn into wingmen when they approach question and answer sessions. They wing their answers and go down in flames, along with an opportunity to build trust.
It takes a great deal of self-confidence to manage an organization, regardless of its size. But self-confidence isn't enough to prepare for a Q/A session with a key audience, especially an audience with an attitude and some tough questions. The only way to be ready for Q/A is to prepare – a lot.
Smart executives go to great pains to prepare for Q/A sessions. They make sure they are grilled with the toughest and widest range of questions and get help on framing solid, effective responses.
Depending on the significance of the Q/A, practice sessions can last for a day or more. Some executives may say they don't have that much time to devote to preparation. They fail to realize they could be spending a whole lot more time on damage control if they bomb in their Q/A performance.
Here are the most frequent problems:
1. Caught off guard by a question.
The question may come from left field, but so what. Left field is still in the ballpark. Good prep work will identify even the most outlandish questions, so you have thought about them and have an answer at the ready.
2. Don't have the information readily at hand.
If you are stumped by a question, it is better to admit it than try to bungle through an answer. However, if a question is fairly obvious – say, it's about the safety features of a proposed facility, the audience will expect you to have an answer. Failing to answer is tantamount to appearing evasive or, worse, uninformed. The people who prep you should have the license to remind you what you should know, which is usually why you are the one standing up giving the answers at a Q/A.
3. Give inarticulate or incomprehensible answers.
Answering a question effectively includes giving an answer the audience can understand. Muddled facts, cloudy descriptions or cryptic references don't cut it. The purpose of an answer to a question is to satisfy the person who asked the question. Your answer may not always make them pleased, but it should never leave them confused. That's why you practice polishing your answers in a prep session.
4. Don't tell the truth.
Believing your own opinions can be dangerous when you are speaking into a microphone to a crowd of people. They don't hold many Q/A sessions in country clubs, so executives need to prepare for a different kind of social engagement. The best advice is to tell the truth – and to make sure of your facts when you prepare for the Q/A.
5. Striking a patronizing tone.
When you know a lot and the audience may be a lot less informed, the temptation arises to give patronizing answers to questions. Unfortunately, audiences have the collective ability to topple you off your smarty-pants pedestal. Good preparation involves converting complex information or nuanced points into clear language.
6. Coming across as untrustworthy.
Just like any good speaker, you need to build rapport and trust with your audience. In a Q/A, that often involves bridging into your answer with some kind of empathetic comment. It can be as simple as "That's a great question" to "You raise a very discerning point." Framing answers in human terms helps to establish rapport because you demonstrate you have taken the time to think about the issue in more than a rote way. Thoughtful answers breed trust, even if they don't always generate agreement.