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Hostility in a Larger Audience

Now let’s move back to the larger audience situation and assume the same question came up. You, as a speaker, have learned something in this exchange. You don’t want to deal with that questioner. He or she is probably a source of trouble. The challenger is probably ready to criticize and tear down the credibility that you have constructed. Therefore, when you complete your answer, don’t end by looking at him or her. You certainly don’t say, “Does that answer your question?”

“And why not?” you might ask. Because he or she will immediately say, “No you didn’t answer my question. What I meant to ask was ._._.” And you are caught in a dialogue with that one person to the exclusion of the rest of the group. On top of that, it’s the one person you don’t want to be caught with. Instead, finish your answer with your eyes fixed on someone on the other side of the room. Then, raise your hand to signal you’ve finished and to encourage other questions.

Sometimes in volatile situations, questioners will bombard the speaker with multiple questions. This happened frequently during the Iraqi war press briefings. Here’s an example of a question that was raised in one of those briefings. It had many parts and much venom ._._. enough to throw almost anyone.

“We have heard that Saddam is alive but wounded, can you verify that? Also, it seems you aren’t doing enough to reestablish normalcy and eliminate the looting in Baghdad. What are you planning to do about this? And how about the economic impact of the war? Businesses are dying in Iraq. Can you comment on that please?”

What does a speaker do with all that? The best way to handle multiple questions is to set up parameters at the beginning to guard against it. I would suggest saying something like this: “In order to make sure we get an opportunity to answer as many people’s questions as possible in the time we have, I’m going to ask you all to please ask one question at a time.”

If you still get asked a multiple question, you have the right, based on your ground rules, to make the question singular. Therefore, your procedure is to rephrase it, condensing it to a manageable morsel:

“That question has many parts. As I hear it, the main thrust is this. What are we doing to get Iraq back on its feet so it can handle its own affairs as an independent nation with a functioning government?”

Now you can answer the rephrased question accordingly. At the end of your answer look elsewhere for the next question so that you don’t get involved in a one on one with that questioner.

Don’t Get into a One on One

If the offensive questioner shouts out, “Hey, you didn’t answer my question,” or “I have another question,” simply state (without looking back) “Excuse me, we have a question over here; let’s give this person a chance.” The audience will side with you when someone tries to dominate—as long as they feel you are making every effort to work on their behalf.

Occasionally someone will talk for three minutes or so while formulating a question. When the talking stops you are not at all sure what has been asked. What do you do? Don’t try to do the mental gymnastics necessary to fight through it and create a question so as to bring order out of chaos. Not your problem. Simply say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your question.” The burden then falls back on the questioner. Usually, the second attempt is shorter and clearer.

Do the same thing if the question is in the form of a statement. Certainly, in both those cases you have the option of formulating a question out of the debris that has been aired. But remember, it’s an option, not a responsibility.

This is especially useful when handling questions in a press conference. If you find yourself facing the press, there is no need to feel awed. They are just part of the audience asking questions, and the same principles apply.

Worst-Case Scenario

Let’s look at a worst-case scenario. Assume you are talking to an audience of fifty people. Let’s say it’s the Investex meeting described earlier. There is one person present who wants to destroy your credibility and scuttle the meeting. He is sitting in the second row, right- hand side. You know he’s there. You know he’s bad news. He’ll be the first to raise his hand. His goal is to monopolize the Q&A. Your goal then becomes to limit his participation so that he doesn’t destroy the impact of the meeting.

The Hostile Question

Frank’s presentation for Investex, not surprisingly, included a few hostile questions. Here is one:

Question: Is it true that the management team’s compensation is not performance-based? In other words, if the fund performs badly you make the same amount of money as if it performed well. There is no motivation to perform well. Is that not true?

Having anticipated the question, prepared, and rehearsed the words he would use, Frank responded like this, starting with a rephrase:

What motivates the management team to perform well?

This was his answer:

I have put together a management team that I think is second-to-none in the financial industry. These people (and you have met some of them today) have different talents and skills. But they have one dominant characteristic in common. They all have a burning desire to excel. They want to be the best in the industry in their discipline.

Each of us is a shareholder in the same funds you are invested in. Our money is invested there because we believe that, in the long run, we are the best and our funds are the best place for our money to be. Just as we feel it’s the best place for your investment dollars.

Are we bonused on the performance of our fund? Yes, we are. But that is not the great motivation. It’s the desire to excel that drives us. Our lives, our careers, our reputations, depend upon it. And you, our shareholders, are served by that drive toward exceptional performance.

Frank wrapped it all up with a tie back:

That’s why we went to great lengths to show you how our performance measured up against that of other funds and the market as a whole. It is true we suffered a 4 percent decline. We regret that, and we’ll strive to improve it. We know we can, once market conditions improve, because our performance, on a relative basis, was quite strong.

Notice how Frank, once again, took on the awkward question directly. No pussyfooting. He answered the question at some length, made himself the center of the interaction, and showed that he was not afraid. Is it a perfect answer? No. There is no such thing as a perfect answer. We are talking about dialogue between you and the audience, not about perfection.

How would the audience react? Probably quite favorably. How would a bad guy react? He would not be satisfied and would probably start to ask a follow-up question. But you would raise your right hand. signaling you are ready for another question. You would put your left hand out, in the stop traffic position facing the bad guy. Then you’d say, while looking elsewhere, “Sorry sir, let’s give someone else a chance. I see a hand over there.” Your hand acts as a stop sign. Your manner reinforces it. Bad guy will go silent. You can count on it.

You can repeat that procedure as the meeting continues. Bad guy might ask three questions, maximum. But he knows, and the rest of the audience knows, that “everyone should have a chance.” Once the audience has that mindset, the influence of bad guy diminishes greatly. And you will have handled the pressure masterfully.

Because Frank and his team rehearsed beforehand, they all handled the questions well. Later on, he told me he was fascinated by the fact that no unanticipated questions were asked.

The potential hostility of the audience never materialized—once the audience grasped that Frank had the meeting—and therefore the issue—well under control. “It’s amazing,” he said, “how proper preparation turned a potentially difficult situation into a controlled environment and a successful meeting.”

He also loved the fact that people came up to him afterward to talk about his family and ask him more about his roots in St. Paul. They loved his opening talk. They were impressed with how he and his team welcomed all the questions and handled them candidly. The result: The audience left the meeting feeling the future would be better than the past. Their money was in good hands. Their confidence in Investex was enhanced. Successful meeting.


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