Answering questions can be nerve-racking! Whether it’s in a corridor conversation, during a meeting, or after a presentation, you’re on the spot. It’s an opportunity for you to shine or fall flat on your face. Whether the question is coming from a familiar face or you are in front of a crowd of thousands, these techniques will help you learn how to answer questions with confidence and clarity.
First, make sure you understand the question
It’s tempting to jump straight into an answer. This is the time it’s important to take a moment. Make sure that you understand the question clearly before you answer it.
If you’re not clear about the question, ask a clarifying question of your own.
Examples of how to clarify a question, by asking a question of your own:
Help me understand, what time frame are you interested in?
Are you referring to online specifically, or our total sales?
Do you mean our US performance, or our global performance?
The key point: make sure you understand the question and ask clarifying questions of your own if needed.
Decide if you want to answer the question
Don’t assume you have to answer the question. You have 3 other options: divert, delay, or return.
You can divert a question by passing it to someone else to answer. Done right, this gives other people the opportunity to shine and positions you as the head of a successful team.
And there are legitimate reasons to divert questions, for example, if you have a technical expert in the room who is better placed to answer the question than you.
Examples of how to divert a question:
Jane, you’re our technical expert, I’ll let you answer this one
Mo, you have deeper insight into the finances than me, why don’t you pick this up
Faisal, you’ve led this work stream, would you like to answer this one
But make sure that the person is well placed to answer the question! (Otherwise it’s very embarrassing for both of you).
Similarly, there can be legitimate reasons for delaying an answer. Ideally you don’t want to delay too often, but sometimes it’s necessary.
Examples of how to delay a question:
Those figures are rapidly changing, let me check and I’ll get back to you later today
Tech support only publish those figures monthly, let me check the latest data and I’ll get back to you tomorrow
The work is ongoing, it will be finalized Friday, I’ll get back to you then
It’s always good to tag on an “is that OK?”, or “Is that time frame OK with you?” just to double check that you’re meeting the needs of the person asking the question.
Sometimes it can be very helpful to return a question. This is particularly true if you feel that the question is ‘loaded’ or has a specific agenda behind it (perhaps one that’s not working in your favor).
Example of how to return a question:
Can you help me understand why that’s important to you?
It’s not something that you’ll want to do too often, but it can help to neutralize a loaded question (and gives you a little extra time to think about how to respond).
How to answer questions – a simple structure
You’ve decided not to divert, delay or return. You want to answer the question, here’s a simple structure that you can use to answer any question.
First, answer the question
“Yes”, “No”, “$500K”, “Next week”, “Kim has that”. Just answer the question. Don’t explain the context, introduce all the characters involved, outline the process or otherwise waste time. Just answer the question. (Nobody wants to hear the details until they’ve heard the answer to their question.)
Second, add 2-3 ‘bullets’ if needed
Once you’ve answered the question, that’s your opportunity to add an additional points you’d like to make. Usually these are additional subtleties that you want to emphasize. As you do this, speak in ‘bullets’ – make it short sharp and to the point.
Finally, return to your main message
In a business contact you will always have a main message to emphasize. If you’re answering questions at the end of a presentation, this is simply the relevant message of your presentation.
Examples of how to answer questions using this structure
Here are 3 examples of how to answer questions using this structure (I’ve added in the questions too, just to give a clearer sense):
How much will the new implementation cost?
It’ll cost $50,000. A couple of points I’d add to that: we have a 10% contingency in the project plan and we have a cheaper option too if needed. Overall, we’re within budget.
When will the project be finished?
It’ll be finished by June. A couple of points I’d add to that: this depends on us getting the headcount we’ve been promised and your prompt sign-off of all the milestones. Overall, we’re on track.
What’s your view of the market?
The market is recovering. One point I’d add to that, there are still areas of softness. Overall, it’s the right time to invest.
This structure is super simple and effective. Get into the habit of using this structure and it will increase your confidence, allow you to focus on your answers and project a sense of authority to your audience.
Two additional tips that really help
Here are two additional tips. These are useful phrases that you can you as you consider how to answer questions.
“It depends” is a great phrase to use: partly because it helps you to clarify your answer, partly because it provides contingency, and partly because it can make you look smart (if used correctly!).
Examples of how to use “It depends”:
It depends, in the US we’re doing well, but globally there’s a more clouded picture
It depends, if we look at last year the numbers are great, but this year the numbers look less robust
It depends, our consumer products are doing well but overall, we’re down
“In my opinion”
“In my opinion” is also a great phrase that can be very useful to contextualize your response.
Basically, you can’t go wrong if you’re just sharing your opinion!
How to answer questions – in summary
First, make sure you understand the question, ask clarifying questions of your own if needed.
Decide if you want to answer the question: you have the option to divert, delay or return.
If you do answer, use this simple structure:
- Answer the question with a quick, simple, direct answer
- Add additional ‘bullets’ if needed
- Return to your main message
Use “it depends” and “in my opinion” when needed.
Get into the habit of using this structure, it will build your confidence and authority.