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Rice Business professor offers PR communications guidance
Public Relations | Commentary

Talking Back

What To Do When The Q&A Gets Testy

By Rick Schell 

What To Do When The Q&A Gets Testy

We’ve all witnessed variations on the scene: the embattled press secretary shrinking behind a podium, the corporate spokesperson issuing a feeble “no comment,” the business presenter fumbling to answer a difficult question.

Whether it’s politics or business, your success will depend at least in part on how well you plan and manage the question-and-answer period. You can’t plan the questions, but you can prepare to answer them well. The following public relations principles can help.

Get Your Idea Across

  • Anticipate likely questions, especially the hard ones: Know your audience. Learn their level of knowledge, their experiences and their expectations. Brainstorm the questions they’re most likely to ask, and focus on the hardest of them so you can answer confidently.
  • Rehearse your answers to the toughest questions: Know your key messages. For each of the hardest questions, write a clear, concise answer that reinforces your main message(s). When you’re satisfied with your response, practice saying it until it flows, sounding natural and unrehearsed. Give it a trial run in front of a colleague who understands your issue and your audience and can tell you how they will likely respond.
  • Engage with the questioner: Listen and observe. When an audience member begins his or her question, square up and make strong eye contact. Your body language must reflect focused, respectful attention. Listen carefully, especially to the questioner’s volume and tone and his or her body language: eye contact, movement, signs of irritation or stress.
  • Seek clarity: Be on point. Since many audience members compose their questions while they ask them, Q and A questions often are vague, extremely broad or simply rambling. If any aspect of a question is unclear, rephrase the question as you understand it or ask your questioner to do so. Then give one of your prepared responses or a variation that reinforces your key messages.

Name That (Hostile) Question

Don’t get trapped. Some questions are not meant to extend the dialogue but to challenge the information you’ve presented, undermine your credibility or hijack your agenda by introducing extraneous issues. Below are examples of a few types of hostile questions.

  • The False Dilemma: These questions attempt to force you to accept one of two extreme (and usually undesirable) alternatives: “Are your revenues down because of poor sales performance or because of ongoing product quality problems?” Both choices may be incorrect and both are extremely negative.
  • The Empty Chair: A questioner may invoke someone who is not present and whose opinion is unknown or irrelevant: “What would your CEO say about this situation?” Even if well intended, these questions can throw the presentation completely off track.
  • The Hypothetical: These questions force you to speculate, often unwisely or inappropriately: “What action will you take if the unemployment rate reaches 15 percent?” Since so many other (unknown) things would have to take place before this could occur, trying to respond can introduce lots of extraneous and potentially negative topics.
  • The False Premise: These questions force you to accept an underlying assumption that may or may not be true: “When will you announce the next round of layoffs?” The question assumes that there will indeed be future layoffs, so you will (unwittingly) confirm that if you attempt to answer it.
  • The Forced Absolute: Trying to refute a question based on a false premise can often prompt a follow-up question: “So, there’s no condition under which you’d have another layoff?” Obviously, you never want to say never on an issue like that, but responding to questions that have a forced absolute may force you into doing so.
  • The Slippery Slope: These questions assume that an action will inevitably lead to a disastrous conclusion: “If you hire contractors for this business function, won’t that lead to outsourcing your whole business operation?” There’s simply no way to refute the hypothetical domino effect that this question posits.
  • The Ad Hominem: Ad hominem (literally “to the man”) questions focus not on the content of your message but on you as the messenger. In most cases they are not really questions but personal attacks, intended to throw you off balance and derail the discussion: “Why would we consider anything you’ve proposed?” You may be tempted to counter the implicit insult, but you won’t likely change this person’s attitude.
  • The Ad Populum: Ad populum (literally “to the people”) questions appeal to the wisdom of the crowd: “How can you recommend XYZ when everybody knows that approach has never worked?” Responding that everybody does not know this simply initiates an argument.

Managing Unfriendly Questions

Sometimes the tone or structure of a question makes it clear that the questioner isn’t really interested in more information, but in undermining you and your position. When that is the case, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Stay professional and respectful: The first step in handling these sorts of questions is to keep calm, take a deep breath and listen carefully. Responding to emotion with emotion will escalate feelings. Also bear in mind that other, perhaps more important, audience members are watching how you respond. You may not win over a hostile questioner, but you will impress others with your professional demeanor.
  • Establish clarity on your terms: Rather than rephrasing a question or asking the questioner to do so, take the initiative and ask your own clarifying questions: “Are you asking how we arrived at this recommendation? If so, let me describe our analysis process.”
  • Don’t accept the premise of a hostile question. Reframe it: Many hostile questions have an implied premise, usually a false or misleading one: “What will keep you from repeating the mistakes your predecessor made when he took over your department?” The implicit premise is that your predecessor made serious mistakes. If you respond, “My predecessor did not make mistakes,” you have accepted that the topic is prior mistakes and helped dig your hole a bit deeper. Instead, reframe the question by focusing on the message you want to deliver: “Let me describe my key priorities and major initiatives going forward.” Rather than spiraling downward into a description of past decisions, you are free to provide a view of the future that you will create.

What If Clarifying And Reframing Don’t Work?

There are three things you can do when calmly seeking clarity and reframing do not work.

  • Call out the questioner, gently: Ask a question like, “Can you help me understand how your question relates to our purpose here?”
  • Call out the questioner, not so gently: Say calmly, “I don’t think we’re moving the dialogue forward. Let’s you and I talk after the presentation.”
  • Know when further conversation is a waste of time, say so, and move on: Say again, calmly, “I need to move on to other questioners.”

And finally, some folk wisdom. Don’t get into a spraying contest with a skunk. And don’t try to teach a pig to sing—it doesn’t work, and it annoys the pig. Your audience will likely thank you.

Rick Schell is a senior lecturer in management and communication at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, where he teaches leadership communication and consultative selling.

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