Strategy of Answering Questions – Oh No You Didn’t Just Ask Me That

Time for answers– Third in a 6-post series –

In the previous post, I talked about the rights you have when you agree to an interview or any business interaction. This post focuses on the ways to answer a question. I will even share with you those questions you don’t have to answer.

In the interview training, we conduct the first interview and then talk about all the things that could’ve gone better. One thing we discuss is the different ways of answering questions:

Direct, Immediate Response – Whenever possible, this is the best way to answer a question. You definitely want to convey your willingness to answer tough questions.

Sometimes people ask non-questions like:  “Tell us about your company,” or “Describe your strategy with this new move.” These “questions” are simply an invitation to start talking.  The interviewer is handing you the microphone and asking you to communicate.  Take this opportunity to define your company or cause.

After Thought – There are some questions that require you to think before you answer.  Since you don’t want to stare at anyone in stunned silence, these are techniques that will give you time to think:

  • Ask the questioner to repeat or rephrase the question.  The question will always be easier the second time.  Even if the question is repeated verbatim, it buys you some time to think about your answer.
  • Repeat or rephrase the question yourself.  “If I understand you correctly, what you’re asking is” or “The key point you are raising in your question is” or “What is important for the audience to know is…”
  • You can also think aloud to buy some time.  “That dates back to the a few years ago” or “Let me just provide a perspective to that…”

Try not to overuse these techniques. Save them for those situations when they are really needed. In press interviews and business conversations there could be questions you don’t have to answer…well, sort of. You do have to give a direct response explaining why you are not going to answer the question.  These responses include:

  • “That’s personal.”  Questions about your salary, voting record, hobbies, personal opinions.
  • “We consider that competitive information,” “Our competitors would love to know that.”  Questions about corporate strategy, profit margins, expansion plans, new products or services are proprietary.
  • “I really can’t talk about it while it’s in litigation.”  There are legal reasons for not answering questions.
  • Negotiations are in progress.”  You don’t have to reveal the progress of ongoing negotiations or private discussions.
  • “It wouldn’t be smart to give a blueprint to our security.”  You don’t have to answer questions about these precautions.

I Don’t Know — The final type of response should prove very helpful; I don’t know.  The best reason of all not to answer a question is that you don’t know the answer. In my spokesperson training, I’ve had CEOs tell me that they could never say “I don’t know” because they are the CEO and are supposed to know everything. Not true. Not true for anyone, really.

Here’s why. In previous posts I’ve established that before your meeting/interview you are going to be prepared with the messages you want to get across. You and the person you are meeting with will agree on the topics to be discussed, and you will review all the possible questions you believe will be asked. Once you actually have the meeting, or make your presentation, you should have built up enough credibility by answering all the other questions that it would be okay to say “I don’t know” followed by “but let me find out.”

One of two things will happen (for a sneak-peek at what I will discuss in my next blog post):  A question is asked and since you have agreed to the topic, and you’ve prepared ahead of time, you will concisely answer that question and “bridge” to your message points. Or, a question is asked and you don’t know the answer. Tell them that and move on to the next one.

You may have heard people complain that a reporter took their words out of context.  Odds are, the reporter didn’t do that. Odds are that person went off his message or tried to answer a question he wasn’t prepared to answer. The same could be said if someone “misinterprets” something you said. Never try to guess the right answer to a question.

Now that you know how to answer and what you can and cannot answer, the next post will talk about the process you should go through when preparing your messages and the technique of bridging, or transitioning from your answer to your message.

Let us know what you think!