How to Handle Tough Questions

Last week, I spoke to a group of auto executives who were looking for advice on how to answer tough questions about new cars they would soon be introducing in showrooms across North America. Around the same time, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton was fielding questions in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Associated Press called her performance "smooth." NBC's Tom Brokaw said Clinton is known for her "legendary" preparation. I told the auto execs to prepare for tough questions in the same way Clinton had probably prepared for her five-hour appearance. It's a five-step technique I call the bucket method, which you can use to prepare for presentations, pitches, sales calls, or any other situation where you anticipate difficult questions.

Step One. Before the event, identify the most common questions likely to be raised. Clinton probably expected a question about her husband's international foundation and its international donors. Critics have been widely publicizing the issue, saying her appointment would be a conflict of interest. She also surely recognized questions about the world's hot spots were fair game. For the car executives, the most common question would probably be along the lines of "How do you expect to sell cars in this economy?" Or "Will 2009 get worse for the auto industry?"

Step Two. Organize the questions into "buckets" or categories. There might only be one question in a bucket, as in the case of the Clinton Foundation, or there might be several, as in the case of the carmakers and the economy. The point is to reduce the number of questions you must prepare for. You'll find that the majority of questions will fall into about seven categories.

Step Three. Create the best answer you have for the category. Now this is critical—the answer must make sense regardless of how the question is phrased. You must avoid getting pulled into a detailed discussion based on the wording of the question. For example, consider Clinton's answer about her husband's fundraising efforts: "I am very proud to be the President-elect's nominee for Secretary of State, and I am very proud of what my husband and the Clinton Foundation and the associated efforts he's undertaken have accomplished, as well." She probably would have said the same thing regardless of how the question was worded.

Step Four. Listen carefully to the question, determine a "trigger" word or phrase you want to respond to, then identify the bucket to pull from to use for your answer.

Step Five. Look the person asking the question in the eye and respond with confidence.

Remember, instead of just answering specific questions, your goal is to persuade your audience about the point you want to make. For example, during one tough meeting, an analyst asked a CEO I work with to respond to some unfavorable comments made by his largest competitor. "Competition" was his trigger word. The CEO smiled and said, "Our view on competition is different than many others. Our view is that you play with class. We compete by giving our customers superior service and sharing our vision for where we see this industry going. As we get more successful, we see more competitors entering the market. It's part of the process of being a leader." With this one response, the CEO deflected his competitor's comments and reframed the issue to focus on his company's leadership.

Well-prepared speakers do not memorize answers to hundreds of potential questions. Instead, they prepare answers to categories of questions. The way a question is phrased is secondary. The next time you anticipate tough questions about your company's product or service, take the time to prepare. Then use the bucket method to stay in control and deliver the points you want to make. Good luck.

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