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Watch Your Manners

The manner in which you accept and answer questions is even more important than what you actually say. You set the tone and atmosphere with your very first answer, and the best way to send the right signal is to have a positive attitude toward all questions. If one person asks a question, it is probably on other people's minds, so when you answer that one person, you're answering everyone.

Because you probably can't decipher the motive underlying a question, you can't take each question at face value. Not all questions are sincere requests for information. Often people want to express their opinion, to show you up, and to demonstrate their wisdom and great intelligence. Your analysis of a question should focus on three things:

  1. The content of the question.

  2. The intent of the question.

  3. The person asking the question.

Never launch into an explanation without fully clarifying the question or being absolutely certain that you understand the question thoroughly. It's all too easy to think you understand what someone else is thinking. For example, if someone asks, "How much time should an employee spend on professional development?" a smart speaker would clarify first by asking, "Do you mean during regular working hours?"

Vague questions are traps for both the speaker and the audience. We are so used to them that we tend to answer too quickly. A classic is the inevitable job interview request: "Tell me about yourself." How can we know what the questioner wants? Yet most people plunge in and talk themselves into all sorts of trouble. Just as people try to count to 10 before losing their temper, the smart speaker will count to three while asking him- or herself whether the question needs to be clarified.

When you analyze the intent and the person behind the question, remember that argumentative people may be looking for recognition. Give it to them, but don't let them take over. You may lose a few points, but telling them that their question really requires more time and asking, "Can we get together after the meeting?" may be the best way to deal with these people. Long-winded people must be cut off, but you have to do it politely and tactfully. And if you get a real troublemaker who causes a disturbance, chances are your audience will express disapproval and ask him or her to sit down.

Make sure that you treat every question seriously and courteously. The occasional bad apple aside, most people are sincere in their desire for more information. The people in your audience have heard your ideas, and you can be sure they have reacted to them, especially if they are new, difficult, or controversial. Always remember that questions mean the audience is involved with you. Even if the question sounds negative, the questioner may just be expressing some anxiety or doubt. The question may just be the person's way of asking for reassurance. Answer politely and you reassure the whole audience, too.


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