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12 Preparing for Questions

If you have ever had the experience of being an expert witness, you know that it can be a very grueling experience. At its worst, the opposing lawyers will be out to destroy both your testimony and your credibility. The lawyers representing the side that called you as an expert witness will prepare you and conduct a mock trial. First, they will take you through giving your testimony. Second, they will play the opposing lawyers and cross examine you in a manner that is similar to the way that they think you will be cross-examined. In other words, it is a dress rehearsal, so you, the expert witness, will be as prepared as possible.

Master_Presenters use the same method to prepare for the questions that they will be asked by anticipating those questions, by having someone else anticipate the questions, or by having a dress rehearsal—sometimes with different types of audiences—so they will be as well prepared as possible.

Communications consultant Roger Ailes says that you should prepare to answer the five toughest questions that the participants will ask you. You can think up the questions on your own, however, it is often a good idea to get others to think up the questions. You can then role-playing the answers to actually see and hear how well you answer. Don't be afraid to do this several times until you get the answers just right. Even if you aren't asked directly the same question that you have prepared for, you can often make an opportunity to get the question in. One of the most famous examples of being absolutely well-prepared was during the 1984 presidential debates between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan. At the time, President Reagan was the oldest serving American President and he knew the question of his age would come up in the debate.

Reagan's response was, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Not only did the studio and television audience break up, the camera got a close up shot of Walter Mondale's reaction and he was seen breaking up on national television.

As Roger Ailes said, "Reagan hit a home run." He hit a home run because he was prepared, and he was prepared because he and his campaign team had anticipated all of the difficult questions that Reagan might be asked.

EXERCISE 4-11

Set up a page in your notebook with the following and please list five of the most difficult questions you can think of for your next presentation.

Question 1:

Question 2:

Question 3:

Question 4:

Question 5:

Next, please list three people who could both ask difficult questions and give you direct and constructive feedback on how well you answered them.

  • Person 1:

  • Person 2:

  • Person 3:


Dealing With "Off-the-Wall" Questions

Opening the floor to questions can be a risky adventure. Occasionally, you will be confronted with questions that are unintelligible or inappropriate. If the question is unintelligible, first ask for clarification. See if you can answer by rephrasing the question. On follow-up, if the question still is not clear and you have a sense that the person asking the question needs more time to think about what he or she is asking, suggest that it is an interesting question, and say you would like to think about it or that you could answer it better at the break. On some occasions, you can also ask if anyone in the audience would like to answer. Be careful, though, that you keep the discussion under tight rein. Some in the audience can be more interested in impressing others than in moving the discussion forward.

When asked an inappropriate question, such as one that is intentionally confrontational or hostile, do not attempt to answer it. Instead say something like: "That is a question that will take some time to answer, please meet me at the break or after the presentation," or "I am not the person to answer that." Then to further emphasize your unwillingness to pursue an inappropriate line of questioning, quickly reposition yourself on the podium to face a different part of the audience. By doing so, you send a visual message: "That conversation has ended."

You can get a better sense of how professionals deal with difficult and/or off-the-wall questions by listening to professional interviewers on both radio and television. Listen closely to their ability to be polite, firm, to ask just the right question at just the right time, and to deal with difficult and off-the-wall remarks and questions.


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