As a leader, it’s easy to interact with Q&A like it’s a pass/fail test.
When your definition of success is to provide the “right” answer, or at least to avoid saying the “wrong” thing, fear can set in, you can self-edit too much, and you can accidentally cause your audience to wonder if you’re hiding something.
But what if Q&A wasn’t a test? What if it was an exploration? An “in the moment” experience of exploring a subject together with your audience? What if your audience only want to see you chew on their questions honestly for a while, elaborate from your perspective, and share your thinking and insight?
Trying this possibility on creates a new level of lightness around the activity of Q&A, and more freedom to play outside of the box.
The next time you face Q&A, play around with these possibilities:
1) Respond to the Specific Question – Audiences can feel when their questions are skirted. They may like or dislike your answer, but they will hate a non-answer. Provide a quick, clear answer and then elaborate. Or do the reverse: Pontificate and then build to a specific answer. Either way, listeners hear your thoughts and get an answer to what they’re asking.
2) Provide Complete Responses – Every subject worth exploring has three parts – Problem, Solution, and Outcome – but most of us tend to leave out one or two of these parts.
An answer is generally a solution (what we’re going to do, or what needs to happen). The best response is not just a solution, but also puts context around it with a problem and outcome. For example:
Q: “What are we going to do to improve sales?
A: “Sales aren’t where we want them. This year we’re focusing on selling our comprehensive offering to our clients and that should put us back on track to double our business in five years.”
3) Build the Answer in Any “Story Order” – Problem/Solution/Outcome is the same as Beginning/Middle/End. Together, they create a story flow that can be told in any order.
You may not see the whole response when the question is asked, so start with the part you know. You might understand the Outcome clearer than you do the Problem or Solution. If that’s the case, start there, and as you talk, the other parts will come to you. Note how this response (in Outcome/Problem/Solution order) makes as much sense as the more classic order in the one above, in #2:
Q: “What are we going to do to improve sales?
A: “We will soon be on track to double our business in five years. But yes, right now, sales aren’t where we want them to be. So this year the plan is to focus on selling our comprehensive offering to our clients.”
4) Focus on Who Your Audience Cares About – Too often, we forget to think about our answers from the perspective of the audience listening. Try to make them the “Main Character” of your answer.
Consider this question raised by staff to leadership: “Why should we commit to this plan?”
Now look at two different answers. The first makes the company the main character:
“If you embrace this plan and do your part, the company will increase its profitability.”
This sounds like an “ask” for staff effort and follow-through with the organization as the beneficiary.
Here’s a second answer, that is all about the staff::
“We believe that this plan will benefit everyone sitting in this room with more stability and potential, but only if you embrace it and do your part.”
Focusing on the right person makes it easier to sell the solution your answer promotes.
5) Don’t Be Afraid to Speak to the Negative – The world is far from perfect. Everyone’s used to that idea. In Q&A, people fear saying anything bad or admitting mistakes, while honesty carries a lot of weight.
There’s a simple way to be honest fearlessly. If you have to speak to a negative, recognize that the negative is merely the beginning of the story – the Problem. Continue from there to attach Solution and Outcome, and your story will forge ahead toward a better place.
Q: “Do you feel you made any mistakes in this last year of planning and strategy, and does that affect your confidence about the upcoming year?”
A: “History can be a great teacher if you’re willing to look at it. I believe we did make mistakes last year, and because of that we’ve taken the hard look that has allowed us to learn and grow. Now we’re doing things differently. That’s why I can so confidently assure you that next year looks promising.”
6) Direct, Sustained Eye-Contact Shows Confidence – There’s always some experience of vulnerability in Q&A. You want to show confidence. As you answer, don’t “scan the crowd” or dart around. Look directly at one person at a time and talk to just one person for about a sentence. Then switch randomly to another person for the next sentence. This extended eye-contact beams confidence even in the middle of self-questioning or doubt.
7) Appreciate Your Audience – Leaders who enjoy, are proud of, and value their team are easier to listen to than those who coldly expect their staff to deliver. Warmth is more magnetic than confidence alone, and it’s easier to follow.
When a parent looks at a child with warmth, the child responds with respect and appreciation. The same is true for leaders and their teams. While you’re engaging your team in Q&A, appreciate the person asking the question, and you will project warm confidence that’s easy to trust.
These seven practices keep Q&A from feeling like a pass/fail test. They help you focus on your team while freeing yourself up from stilted self-editing. Be there to help, and think out loud to share how your thinking connects the dots between the Problems, Solutions, and Outcomes that every team member’s question relates to.
What’s your take on Q&A? Share your thoughts and questions below!