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EXPERT TIPS

Answering Questions Is a Vital Business
Communication Skill

By Ron Rogers, Jeff Winton Associates Consultant

September 2022

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Regardless of your career path, you will spend a lot of time communicating. A 2011 Harvard Business School study found that managers spend 90 percent and CEOs spend 85 percent of their time communicating.  The Global Talent 2021 report predicts that communications skills will be vital to personal and business success in the future.   While effective communication is multifaceted and complex, one important skill that often needs improvement is answering questions.

 

The author, Lewis Carroll, wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” The same is true about answering questions with finesse. If you do not know where the narrative is heading, what your key messages are, or who your audience is, then give any answer and hope for the best. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day, right? 

 

The “wing-it” approach is not recommended. The consequences of leaving your answers to fate can include: 

  1. Being forgettable

  2. Losing out to a competitor

  3. Making a misstatement or gaffe

  4. Missing an opportunity to influence

  5. Offending your audience

  6. Over- or under-answering

  7. Stepping into a trap 

 

If you do not effectively answer questions from your colleagues, employees, managers, customers, the media and the general public, you will not instill confidence in your leadership or achieve your business or personal goals. You also may put your company’s reputation at risk.

 

Sam Donaldson, the former longtime ABC News anchor and reporter, once said, “Questions do not do the damage. Only the answers do.” Great communicators know this and do not undervalue the significance of having sharp Q&A skills. In fact, most CEOs and other C-suite executives have an a priori belief that they are personally responsible for their Q&A performance. 

 

Here are seven proven techniques that business leaders use to successfully answer questions: 

  1. Anticipate the top 10 questions of your audience. You can anticipate questions by asking about your audience’s top concerns regarding the info you will share. 
     

  2. Prepare responses ahead of time. After you list the most likely questions, write responses ahead of time and practice your delivery in front of a mirror or close friend because how you answer a question can be as important as what you say.
     

  3. Repeat the question to ensure you understand the questioner’s chief concern. This technique will help you eliminate any extraneous information and focus your response on the heart of the inquiry.
     

  4. Keep your answers brief, direct and on message. Over communicating is one of the most common communication mistakes and can result in unintended gaffes. Remember, answering a question is not a test of how much you know about a given topic.
     

  5. Summarize your main messages at the end of your meeting or presentation. This approach can avoid a question-and-answer session. Where one is expected, such as at an employee town hall, be sure to review in advance all the potential negative questions you might be asked to be prepared.
     

  6. Acknowledge when you do not know the answer. Occasionally you will receive a question to which you do not know the answer. If this happens stay calm and do not fake an answer because you can lose credibility quickly. Instead, acknowledge that you do not have an answer and tell the questioner you will follow-up later, and then make sure to circle back in a timely manner. Depending on the situation or context, you also could ask a fellow colleague familiar with the topic to provide an answer.
     

  7. Keep a beginner’s attitude. Actively solicit feedback and take inventory of your Q&A performance. Although criticism can be uncomfortable, this fact-finding, fact-facing technique will help you rapidly enhance your skills.

 

We hope these pro tips, along with your commitment to improve, will bring you much success in most Q&A situations that you will encounter. Still, there may be some situations where advanced communication techniques are helpful, such as navigating media interviews, testifying at a legislative or government agency hearing or participating in a legal deposition. 

 

If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory, ask for help. You can reach out to your company’s corporate communications department or hire a communications consultant or public relations agency. There is an excellent chance these professionals have the breadth and depth of experience to help you hone your skills and propel you into the echelon of great business communicators. 

 

(Recommended additional reading: Fire Away by Myles Martel. ©1994)

 

1. Bandiera, O., Guiso, L., Prat, A. & Sadun, R. (2011). What do CEOs do? Harvard Business School. Accessed at: https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/11-081.pdf.
 

2. Oxford Economics. (2012). Global Talent 2021: How the new geography of talent will transform human resource strategies. Accessed at: http://www.scm.oas.org/pdfs/2013/CIDI03946E.pdf

 

Ron Rogers brings to Jeff Winton Associates more than three decades as a corporate communications counselor in the life sciences for Fortune 100, mid-sized and start-up companies. His expertise includes strategic communications planning, commercial execution and budget management. He is passionate about translating scientific information into best-in-class news and compelling narratives.

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