I’ve written a lot about planning and preparation, but there is also tremendous value in having the skill and poise to rise to the occasion when someone springs an unexpected question on you or asks you to say a few words on a particular topic. Having survived (so far) 21 years in front of trainees, I’ve developed a few habits that have served me well.
Plan for the unexpected. This sounds like an oxymoron; how can you prepare for an impromptu talk? If you’re going to a meeting, think about who will be there, and based on your knowledge of their history, their positions and their stake in the topic, what might they ask? To be really sure, don’t limit yourself to the scheduled topic. You might be there to discuss a particular project, but someone might have an interest in one of your other projects as well.
Practice situational awareness. Have you ever had the feeling of looking up and seeing all eyes turned on you? It’s easy to tune out or check your email momentarily when someone else is speaking on a topic that doesn’t immediately concern you—and that’s when Murphy’s Law guarantees that someone will direct a question to you. There’s nothing more credibility-crushing than having to ask someone to repeat the question.
Listen to the question. Make sure you answer the correct question: one problem with being too prepared is that when you hear the beginning of a question that sounds just like the one you prepared for, you begin formulating your response before the question is totally out of the questioner’s mouth. What if they swerve in a different direction while you’re formulating your answer? Second, your willingness to listen respectfully to the question is likely to be reciprocated when you are speaking to them.
Use the time when they are asking the question to concentrate fully on the words and on the questioner. Don’t begin formulating your answer until you’ve heard the entire question; you’ll have plenty of time between the end of their question and your response to think of your answer.
After you’ve listened, don’t be afraid to pause. A good friend of mine once told me, “Your perceived IQ goes up ten points if you pause before answering a question.” I’m not sure what the science is behind that assertion, but it generally works. (Unless the question is an easy one; then you just look slow or devious.) In her book, The Charisma Myth, Olivia Cabane tells us that a two-second pause will automatically boost your presence. You can also buy time by repeating the question or asking for clarification, but overuse of this technique gets old fast.
Answer the question. Politicians seem to get away with not answering the actual question that was asked, but you won’t get away with that for long in a business setting or sales call. You may have good reasons to go beyond the actual question that was asked, and that’s perfectly fine, as long as you earn the right to do that by answering the question first.
Or don’t. Sometimes you can’t or should not answer the question. In that case, don’t try to bluff or dance around it. If you don’t know, say, “I don’t know, but I can get those figures and call you back this afternoon.” Or, just leave out the first four words and say: “I can get those figures and call you this afternoon.” If you could answer the question but choose not to, be up front about it, but toss them a bone if possible. “Unfortunately I can’t comment until we’ve spoken to all the parties involved. But what I can tell you is…”
Practice Need to Know. When you’re an expert, you know and care more about your topic than the questioner, so you tend to tell them more than they need. What does the questioner need to know to make sense of your answer? Give them the bare minimum, and add a signal that there is more if they want to follow up: “In general, that’s the approach I would recommend, although there are some risks.”
Answer the spirit and not the letter of the question. Need to know is a useful policy to keep from being overly long in your answers, but sometimes you can err on the side of being too short. For one reason, people often ask a closed-ended question when they really want to know more. A silly example is when someone asks, “Do you know what time it is?” Only a real jerk would answer, “yes.” If it is a literal yes or no question, give them the yes or no, and then add the appropriate additional information that will satisfy what they need to know.
What about impromptu presentations? The preceding suggestions apply to answering questions, but sometimes you actually have to give some sort of “presentation” without having had time to prepare. Someone might ask for a status report on your department, for example, and expect a longer answer. For those who are familiar with Toastmasters International meetings, these situations are like Table Topics, in which you’re expected to speak for two minutes on a topic with zero preparation time. The best approach in this case is to pause long enough to take a stand or select one point, state it up front, and then develop it as necessary.
This is the opposite of the usual approach, which is to begin talking about a topic and then develop what you want to say about it and finally reach a conclusion. The problem with the usual approach is that it looks like half-baked thinking, as if you’re making it up as you go along. If you state your conclusion at the beginning, it came up in your mind for a reason, and the reasons will come.
In a way, all this advice can be summed up as, pay attention, know your audience, and keep it short. If you can stick to these three principles, you will never be at a loss for words.