Leadership

The answer is not 42: Respond to questions like a human being

Yamini Naidu /

In Douglas Adams’ cult classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an incredibly powerful computer named Deep Thought is built to provide the answer to the ‘ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything’. After the great computer program had run for 7.5 million years, the answer was announced. The ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything is… 42.

Now, we know you are not going to take that long to answer any questions you are asked after you present, and hopefully your answers will be more illuminating than 42. So how do you answer questions? In a follow-up post to Does anyone have any questions? here are our top tips.

1. Be prepared for the questions

You should be able to predict about 90% of your questions. Run your presentation past a peer or trusted advisor and ask them what questions people are likely to have. If someone else has presented similar material before, pick their brains over coffee and ask what it is that clients always want to know about this subject. If you are going to be making the same presentation a few times, then start putting together a FAQ document. Preparation really helps nail the Q&A section of your presentation.

2. Acknowledge the question

When you are asked a question the first step is to acknowledge the person asking it. This is sometimes called ‘giving status’.  So you could say: ‘That is an interesting question’ or ‘A very insightful observation’ or ‘Thanks for asking that, I’m sure many people are thinking the same thing.’  Sometimes I ask for the questioner’s name and might simply say: ‘Thanks Tom.’ But please remember this has to be genuine and make sure you do not parrot the same line after each question is asked! That would defeat the purpose.

3. Repeat and ascertain

The next step is to check the rest of the audience heard the question and if they haven’t, repeat it for them.  Sometimes, if the question was quite detailed or rambling, you can ascertain whether you have got the question right but narrowing it down to one or two focus words that the questioner has used. For example, by saying: ‘Would it be right to say you are asking about how to implement this in your business?’  The focus word being ‘implement’, which will then guide your answer.

4. Answer using PEP

Always acknowledge, repeat and ascertain if necessary, and then move on to answering the question using a simple three-step formula.  Make a point, provide an example or evidence, and repeat the point you are making but use different words. Think of this as a PEP answer: point, example, point. This helps keep your answers punchy, short and to the point. The Q&A session is often when energy drains away from the room, especially when the presenter drones on with their answers or gets on their favourite hobby horse. PEP helps discipline presenters and keeps the energy levels buoyant in the room.

5. Have a wide lens when answering questions

Quite often presenters simply focus their answer and eye contact on the person raising the question.  This does two things, it makes the person uncomfortable to be in the spotlight and it disengages the rest of the audience. As a practical solution, when you acknowledge and ascertain you should make eye contact with the person who asked. When you are repeating and using PEP to answer, you should broaden your focus and look at the rest of your audience. When you end you should return your focus and make eye contact with the person who asked the question to make sure they are happy with your answer. If this sounds hard think narrow focus (eye contact with the person who posed the question), wide focus (eye contact with the rest of the audience) and finish on narrow focus (eye contact with person who asked the question).

Douglas Adams was asked many times why he chose the number 42 as the answer to everything and many theories, from binary representations to Tibetan monks, have been proposed. He finally answered: “The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought, ’42 will do’. I typed it out. End of story.”

Perfect answer.

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