How to Handle Tough Questions at Press Conferences and Annual Meetings

It's one thing to face a heckler, it's another to face an angry mob. Here's advice from Interace

Picture this. You’re in the spotlight, there’s a negative, unfriendly swell of shareholders, stakeholders and media people in the room, and the time comes for Q&A.

You’re response to the first question is to look flushed and say, “Well, um, let’s see…”

What do you do?

At this point, it’s too late.

Five ways to prepare for a high-stakes Q&A session

Tough press conferences, annual meetings and boardroom inquisitions are more like a chess game of words than conversation. I’ve seen good people made to look ridiculous because they didn’t think they needed to prepare. After all, they didn’t have anything to hide. Then, when it came time to stand up and represent their name, company, employees and reputation, they fumbled and went into brain freeze.

Here are five steps to consider when you’re making a high-stakes appearance that includes dicey Q&A:

1. Read and Research. Begin by reading everything you can get your hands on that relates to the topic you are most worried about. What is being written, tweeted and posted about the topic? What are the rumors, unsubstantiated claims and real facts?

2. Spot the challenges. Your research will help you I.D. the hot spots, the trouble areas and the tough questions that might come with them. Brainstorm with your teammates to make sure your list is complete. The last thing you want is to be surprised because everyone will know it.

3. Organize into groups. Sort the questions into groups. For example: Funding, Responsibility, Consumers and Safety. The whole idea is to keep your brain on track.

4. Create the best core answer or key message for each group. The worst thing you can do is speculate or go down a hole of useless detail. You look ill-informed and ineffective. Key messages can keep you focused when you’re under fire.

For example, a key message for questions regarding safety protocol might sound like this: Safety is our number one concern and we’re proud of our track record. We’ve worked to reduce our injury rates and have achieved a nearly 65 percent reduction over a 10-year period.

5. Practice. Dry run the questions with your team as many times as it takes for you to be able to answer them with ease without defensiveness or hesitation in the moment. You want to maintain an open expression and relaxed body language.

Will I come across as rehearsed and overly orchestrated if I practice Q&A?

Do these steps seem over-orchestrated? Many of us hear “key messages” and cry foul with labels like “slick politician.”

There’s plenty of supporting evidence for that association. But it’s also naïve to think you will get soft ball questions in today’s media environment—and dangerous to show up unprepared.

Whether you’re a spokesperson, CEO, Executive Director of a non-profit or head of the PTA, people will judge your organization by how you handle yourself.

Not long ago, I worked with a Fortune 100 CEO, “David,” on a high stakes press conference. The company had weathered some negative press (some deserved, some not) and he was appropriately nervous as he anticipated tough questions. We followed the five steps religiously and when it came time for the conference, he was humble, but confident.

David answered all the questions and didn’t side-step taking responsibility for missteps. He also set the record straight on misperceptions.

Preparation like this is not about being slick or untruthful. It is making sure that you aren’t the novice sitting down to play a game of chess with Bobby Fischer.

Using Q&A to engage

Most of us will conduct Q&A outside the risky spotlight scenario. But it is the most over-looked portion of a meeting for the power to engage people in dialogue. Typically we do a terrible job by saying, “Any questions? Okay, that’s it. See you next week.”

When planning the roll out of a new initiative or project update, consider these pointers for your Q&A:

1. Be the one who asks the questions to engage your audience. Instead of throwing the responsibility out to the team, ask, “How can we improve on this plan? What am I missing? What are your concerns with the timeline?”

2. If the questions are still slow in coming, say, “One of the questions that is coming up about this project is …” It will warm people up and someone will take it from there.

3. When you get a question, don’t rush to answer simply because you know the answer. Thank the individual for the question after he or she has finish asking it. Pause before answering.

4. Repeat the question after it is asked to make sure you have it right. If the question is long and vague, it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure I understand the question—could you repeat it?”

5. If you do not know the answer, say so. You will destroy your credibility by doing anything else.

6. Call on teammates in the meeting for their thoughts. You might let them know in advance you’d like their participation.

7. End with a powerful close. After the Q&A portion of your talk, come back and do a powerful close that sends people away with a big idea and a sense of direction.

Finally, don’t forget the tenants of great communication just because you’re conducting a Q&A session.

Listen with generosity. Humanize your answers. Be succinct.

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Avatar for Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.