Five Keys to Handling Difficult Questions

Posted on February 20th, 2019 by David Lewis

Handling difficult questions during and after your presentation, meeting or call is just as important as the presentation, meeting, or call itself.

Want proof? Here are some examples of how handling difficult questions poorly affected a company’s brand or their bottom line.

During United Airlines’ third quarter earning’s call in 2017, analysts peppered CEO Oscar Munoz and his two top lieutenants with questions. Having lost money over the years, they wanted answers to how the company was going to reach revenue targets in spite of rising costs and falling fares and pricing power. Munoz responded by asking for “a little bit more patience.” After the call, United’s stock price plummeted 12 percent, losing $2.5 billion of market value in a single day.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill claimed 11 lives and spewed 200 million gallons of oil into the ocean. During interviews, then British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward created a public relations nightmare. He minimized the disaster and downplayed the environmental consequences. He said the spill was “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean.” He shirked responsibility and attempted to shift blame to the rig’s owners. He said, “This was not our accident . . . .This was not our drilling rig. . . . This was Transocean’s rig. Their systems. Their people. Their equipment.” He even complained about the inconvenience the oil spill was causing him. He said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

During All Things Digital 8, journalist Kara Swisher asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about privacy controls and how Facebook protects a user’s private information. Zuckerberg’s response was visibly uncomfortable. He broke eye contact with his interviewers and stammered through a lengthy, rambling story about how he started Facebook with his friends. His nerves and panic got the best of him. One person described Zuckerberg as “literally dissolving in a lake of his own sweat.”

As we highlight in The Bullseye Principle, to retain credibility and influence others, leaders must handle difficult questions and emotional interactions by clearly and confidently answering questions or clarifying information. Here are some tips.

First, focus on your audience by returning to Pinnacle’s three-step process:

  1. Analyze the person asking the question and try to figure out what they want or expect to hear from you.
  2. Understand what you need to say and do to elicit the reaction you want.
  3. Modify your delivery to accomplish that objective.

Project confidence

Use a solid home base position – feet are planted, pelvis locked, arms hanging loosely by your sides, unless gesturing. Raise and open your chest and keep your chin level to the ground, with eyes forward. Maintain good eye contact.

Pause before you start

You have approximately one or two seconds to formulate your answer. Use them wisely—but above all, use them.

Slow down

Slow down the rate of your speech so you can control your words and shape your message. Once the words are out, you can’t put them back in.

Choose your words carefully

Imagine three mental bullet points that can serve as a roadmap for your answer. This will help you structure your message so it is clear and easy for your audience to understand.

Say less

The longer you speak, the higher the odds you will misspeak, go on too long, or lose your audience’s attention. Keep your response tight and specific.

The ability to handle difficult questions in a confident and compelling manner is essential to establishing or maintaining credibility. If you nail the delivery of the message but can’t answer the questions effectively, all your audience will remember is that you were unable to answer questions to their satisfaction.

To learn how we can help your leaders and managers handle difficult questions, please contact us

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