Recently, I was invited, together with several other facilitators to a preview of a training methodology which the founders were hoping to introduce to Singapore. Towards the end of the session, we the facilitators had several questions for the speaker. However, every time we asked a question, the speaker immediately responded with an answer. I was dissatisfied, and maybe even momentarily pissed because she didn’t address the concerns we had adequately. If anything, her answers just continued to reiterate how amazing the program is.
I totally get the speaker’s passion for the work (she was not the founder, but a trained practitioner who is distributing it), but this is where passion may be a blockage rather than a boost. I left the session feeling that she had an objective of promoting the program, and knew what she was sharing. However, she made a mistake many passionate speakers commonly make, NOT LISTENING. She was so preoccupied by her passion and expertise that she wasn’t listening to our questions.
To me, she has missed a trick!
In this article, I share how I felt she could have better handled the question and answer session in order to build better relationship with us the audience. Below, I share five steps that I felt she (and anyone else) can take to better handle Question and Answer sessions.
Step 1: Adopt a Mindset of Appreciation for Questions
This is the first step, because it is about the mindset. Many people do not respond well to questions because they have a mindset of presentation that goes like this, “I am the subject matter expert, and I am here to present my information to you.” As a result of this mindset, they often think of questions as disruptions to their quest to persuade and inspire. For example in the above situation, as experienced facilitators, we were her potential partners to bring the program to more people, we were not there to derail her plans. Therefore, the way she handled the Q & A gave me the impression she was fending off a pack of wolves, instead of creating a real connection.
The most important people in every speech or sales conversation are your audience. You may have a great song to sing, a great musical piece to play. But acknowledge that everyone has a piece of different music in their ears, and if you want to influence your audience, you have to play the music that’s meaningful to them, not just what you want to play.
Step 2: Pause and Breathe
One of the common mistakes we make as communicators is that we do not like silence. There is a tension that comes from silence if we pause to ponder the question, we are afraid of being seen as being stumped and therefore incompetent. That cannot be further from the truth. When we pause between receiving a question and delivering an answer, we are indirectly communicating that the question is important and deserved an educated response.
Step 3: Mirror and Validate the Question(er)
You can learn a lot more about a person’s thought process by the questions they ask, than by the answers they give. Questions are indicators of real concerns. When people have questions, they have unmet needs or unaddressed concerns.
In the above situation, if we were not even interested, we wouldn’t have asked any questions. The opposite of adoption is not rejection, it’s apathy. Several times, she immediately responded with, “I understand your question…” and then went on to give her answers. Saying “I understand your question…” does not mean that she has understood. When people raise a question, they don’t just want an answer, it’s not merely a battle of wits or proving your intellectual horsepower. People want to know their concerns are heard and understood. Therefore, you want to mirror and validate the concerns they may have. A good practice could be prefacing your answers by doing a check-in, e.g. “Thanks for the question, I am hearing you are asking about _________ (concern), am I right?” Or, you may say, “Can I check that you are concerned about _________?”
If you really listened and paid attention to questions, you will derive more insights, and create a real connection to your audience. So, when you are asked a question, listen carefully, and ponder for a while where they are coming from. Why are they asking this question? What are they concerned about?
Step 4: Answer the Question
The next step is to deliver the answer, in the sincerest form possible from your abilities. If you do not have the answers, the best policy is just to be completely authentic and vulnerable by saying “you’ve raised a very powerful issue which we have not considered/encountered before, and we don’t have all the answers. It’s useful to explore it together.” In fact, by this point, if you have done the above three steps well, you would have already created a connection with the audience that exhibiting vulnerability that you “don’t have all the answers” may even be more powerful in inviting people into the conversation to co-create a solution. When people are part of a solution, their ownership, and therefore commitment, will be even higher!
Step 5: Complete your Answer and Follow Through
It is important to not go on and on with your answers. A question is not an invitation for you to continue to make the sales pitch. If anything, overdoing the sales pitch conveys that you are not as confident about yourself/your product and therefore you’re overcompensating. Complete your answer and follow through by checking in with the questioner that they are satisfied with the answer. By this, I do not mean a tentative “I hope that answers your question.” More powerful would be “That’s what I have for you now. If you have further queries, I am happy to answer it off stage.”
This step is very important because it has a twofold effect. Firstly, inviting further conversation demonstrates your confidence in your answer and your share, and secondly and more importantly, it offers to continue the relationship that has been just built. In the situation above, the speaker is looking for collaboration partners and not requiring us to open our wallets immediately to sign up for a limited time offer. Therefore, offering to continue the relationship will build a further bridge towards eventual collaboration.
It’s About the Connection and Relationship
A presentation is about establishing a connection and a relationship with the audience. As the saying goes, people do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. If your audience has cared enough to sit through a presentation and cared further to ask questions at the end of the presentation, it is not meant as a threat, it is a GIFT for you!
By learning to appreciate questions, learning to pause and breathe and not feel the need to fill silence by talking, by learning to mirror and validate people’s underlying concerns behind their questions, it will make your answers more powerful, more relevant, more meaningful and most importantly, help you better build relationship with the audience. By mastering this skill, you will be a more influential salesperson, a more impactful speaker, and a better connector.