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Handling Difficult Questions

“Questions tempt you to tell lies, particularly when there is no answer.” – Picasso

In a mock press conference I asked my client a question for which he did not have a ready answer.  As his mind raced to come up with a coherent response, his nerves got the best of him and he froze.  I said, “Cut!” and we discussed what just happened.  In a nutshell, he did not know how to handle the situation and the longer he waited, the worse it became in his mind.

There are a few tried and true tactics you can utilize when faced with a difficult question.  Remember that these moments – while certainly high pressure and fraught with the unknown – are really just another opportunity to get your message across.  When all else fails, try to turn the focus back to one of your key points, by saying, “As I said previously…”

Second, never make up an answer or evade the question.  If it’s a matter of not understanding what was asked, try to repeat the question and ask for verification. If it’s a matter of not wanting to answer, then rephrase the question to the one you hoped would be asked.  The classic lead-in is “If you’re asking me X…then…”

Third, if you still find yourself stuck, then ask a question back:  “Can you re-state your question?” or “Why is that important?” At a minimum, you buy yourself some time.

Finally, for those questions that cannot be answered due to legal or other reasons, explain to the questioner that you are not able to answer the question at that time and you’ll get back to them, or bridge to another point by saying, “but what I can tell you is…” This is one of the most helpful transition phrases you can put in your bag of tricks.

The more you practice answering difficult questions, the better you become at staying focused on a key message and avoiding the verbal cul-de-sac.  We advise our clients to keep their answers to 20 seconds.

So the next time you are about to enter in a Q&A session, remember the wise words of Mae West who said, “Don’t keep a man guessing too long – he’s sure to find the answer somewhere else.”

– Barbara Roche

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