The entrepreneur finished his presentation with confidence. He had told a compelling story about his startup, which had created software to help companies track their corporate social responsibility performance. The potential investors in the audience admitted they were impressed, even though the company’s burn rate was high.
Then came the curveball.
As the lights came up, one of the VCs asked, “Instead of investing in you, why don’t we just wait for you to go bankrupt, then buy your software for pennies on the dollar?” There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, the entrepreneur said, “Ummm, well, I’m not sure, I hadn’t really considered that.”
The pitch went downhill from there.
As a communications coach to senior business leaders, I can tell you that scenarios like this one are very common when leaders are answering questions when they’re seeking to raise capital, sway their employees or close a deal with a customer. Simply put, most executives bomb at Q&A, or at least are not as effective as they wish they were. Yet the ability to answer questions under pressure is a crucial skill. Every question represents an opportunity that you should be prepared to capitalize on.
Here’s a short list of the typical failings I see. Speakers open their mouth and blather on, but don’t actually answer the question. They fail to see the underlying issue that prompted the question. They become highly defensive or even confrontational. Or they overthink and try to put a positive spin on things rather than giving an authentic and accurate response—even when that response might be, “I just don’t know.”
Read: Acting Lessons for CEOs
Why do these failures matter? Because a Q&A is where people make up their minds about whether or not to believe in you. As the entrepreneur in the above situation discovered, you can’t create believers in your audience unless you can address their concerns with effective answers. Whether you’re bootstrapping a startup, running an established business or have just acquired a competitor, you need to be exceptional at Q&A.
To help you get there, here are the five most common mistakes I see in Q&As, and what you can do to avoid them:
Moving the mouth before the brain is ready
Tough questions put you under a lot of pressure. Facing this, many leaders start talking before they’ve formulated their thinking. Usually this verbal stream of consciousness is filled with clichÃ©s meant to buy time, like, “That’s a great question, I’m really glad you asked it!” and they lack any sort of clear, structured response.
The solution: Use the power of the pause. No one gets angry that you took too long to consider the best way to respond to their question. I advise my clients to write down the question and then begin making notes about the response so the audience understands they are “working” on how best to reply.
Failing to listen for traps
Another common mistake I see in Q&As is a failure to identify traps embedded in questions. The most common one is an inaccurate fact or assumption that goes uncorrected. Other traps include questions that are unclear, multiple questions or questions that are really soapbox speeches.
I remember an owner at a trucking company who was asked, “Since our industry is doing well and we aren’t, have you thought about replacing yourself?” He got so anxious about the personal attack that he missed a chance to correct the inaccuracy and point out that the industry was actually performing poorly—but his company was doing far better than the benchmark.
The solution: Listen, listen, listen. Identify any traps embedded in the question and then deal with them before you respond to the question itself. In some cases, dealing with traps may preclude the need for an answer at all!
“Spinning” rather than answering
Too often simple questions are met with long speeches that fail to respond to what was asked. Questions such as, “Will we be introducing health benefits next year?” are met with answers like, “Thanks for asking! We’re committed to maintaining an industry-leading value proposition for our employees at all levels.”
The solution: Simple: answer the question, up front. That means saying, “Yes,” “No” or even “That’s not something I can predict.” Until you respond, no one wants to hear your spin.
Facing tough questions is stressful, and sometimes those questions can be emotionally laden or aggressive. Yet any leader who gets defensive in a Q&A cedes the high ground and comes off as having something to hide.
The solution: Stay calm and stay positive. If the question is emotionally laden, respond with empathy. If the question is hostile, calmly refute inaccuracies and give a clear response. Even though you may not win over the questioner, you’ll score points with the other people in the room.
Failing to deliver a message
Many leaders who effectively listen to and answer questions still miss out on fully capitalizing on the opportunity a Q&A presents. This is because they fail to deliver a clear message that addresses the underlying issue or concern that prompted the question in the first place. I remember the founder of a successful family food-services business who was asked, “Will your son take over as CEO one day?” His response was, “We can’t be sure of that.” Although he had answered honestly, he failed to address the concern over succession that led to the question.
The solution: After you answer the question, deliver a clear message that speaks to the concern of your audience. In the above example, that could have meant adding, “What I can tell you is that he is one of three candidates, and we’re confident that the process we’re following will result in the right CEO for our future.”
Bart Egnal is an executive coach and a Vancouver-based partner and senior vice-president with The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.
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