Answering Questions

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We’ve all watched with interest lately as leaders and scientists answer our questions - some badly and some with clarity and insight. I’m sure you and your teams have lots of questions too, so here’s how to answer them effectively, whilst maintaining and building trust.

Let’s talk about questions and how to answer them. 

We’ve all watched with interest lately as leaders and scientists answer our questions – some badly and some with clarity and insight. I’m sure you and your teams have lots of questions too, so here’s how to answer them effectively, whilst maintaining and building trust.

Here’s your starting point. Human beings are incredibly perceptive: we know when we are being lied to, we know when someone is telling the truth, we have a sixth sense for authenticity. So, begin with that.

There are only 4 ways to answer a question effectively:

  • Answer it
  • Say why you can’t
  • Say why you choose not to.

Hang on I hear you say that’s only 3! More on that in a bit.

Let’s take the first – If you have the answer, give it. There are lots of ways to bring your answer to life, both in content and style, and I’ll talk about that in other videos. But here’s one helpful guide. 

It really helps to structure your answer in a way that keeps the listener engaged. So think of a newspaper article. It gives you a short clear headline that gets you attention.  Then, the opening paragraph summarises the key parts of the story. The rest of the article gives more detail, context and colour. So if the answer is yes. Say yes. Then check in with the questioner and give some more context and only go into detail only when asked to or if it’s useful. Again, check in with the listener after each phase, do they want more detail or is that enough?

Let’s look at the second – Say why you can’t answer the question. No one expects you to have the answer to every question. And if you don’t know, you don’t know. If that is the case, make a commitment to help source the answer or inform the listener where or who they can go to, to get the answer.

So for example. Its fine to say “I don’t know the answer to that question. Jenny, is best placed to answer that, I can put you in touch with her or you can find her information on our website.

The third – Say why you choose not to answer the question. 

There are many reasons why you may legitimately not want to answer a question – timing, sensitivity, legality or political reasons and that’s fine. But it’s vital to explain why you’re choosing not to. So you might say. “Thanks for that question. I’m not gonna answer that right now. The reason being we have an additional report coming out on Monday and I think it would be more helpful to make a decision when we have that information. Please come back to me on Tuesday I’d I’ll be happy to give you a full answer then.”

If you take any of these three approaches, and do it from a place of integrity – your relationship with your audience is maintained and even enhanced. Failure to do one of these risks fracturing your relationship with the listener. If you do that persistently, you open yourself up to judgements about your honestly, integrity, ability, credibility, your comfort in this situation or your suitability for the role. Crucially it opens you up to questions around your trustworthiness. So hard won and so easily lost.

So what about that fourth way. Well not all questions are created equally. Indeed many are really bad or at least not well formed or articulated. So you don’t have to answer a question right away. You can answer a question with a question. In fact if it’s poor question, you absolutely should – it’s in your and the questioners interest to seek clarification or get more detail. So you might say “OK thanks, before I try and answer that can you just tell me a bit more about X.” In most cases the questioner will give you much more detail or indeed reframe the question in a much clearer way.

Of course all of these approaches only work when we also think about the ‘how’. How you use your voice, your body and your content to be congruent and authentic. More on that in other videos.

Good luck!

Robert Shaw Cameron

Robert Shaw Cameron

Robert Shaw Cameron is Partner & Director of [non]fiction PEOPLE. He is a professional actor, theatre director and communications coach bringing his 20 years in theatre and business together to support leaders and teams in their communication.

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