How to answer questions

Sign from my presentation at the MuzeoOn May 24, I gave my presentation at the Muzeo in Anaheim based on my book Mastering Table Topics.

My subject, “How to Answer Questions,” may seem basic at first. We’ve been answering questions since we were old enough to speak. But think of all the times you’ve encountered people who can’t give a simple answer. Politicians who are long on platitudes but short on facts. Coworkers who respond to your questions by handing you a word salad filled with words but no useful information. It’s like a salad that’s mostly lettuce and a few slivers of carrots and E. coli.

Giving effective answers is a valuable skill that can benefit us professionally and personally. This is what I covered at the Muzeo.

Handling special cases

Before telling people how to answer questions, I covered a few special cases when you might not want to give an answer.

First, you are not obligated to answer a question, especially if it makes you feel uncomfortable. (Legal situations are a different matter. Consult a lawyer to know what your rights and obligations are.) You can handle those questions, as one audience member suggested, by acknowledging a person’s desire to know while asserting yourself. (“I appreciate your concern, but I’d rather not talk about it right now.”)

Second, it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” This may be tough at work or another situation where you’re expected to know the answer. But it is better to admit you don’t know than to wing it and give out bad information. You can always look up the information and get back to them later, but it’s hard to undo the damage caused when they act on your inaccuracies.

Understand the question

If you do know the answer and want to give it, the first thing to do is to make sure you understand the question. And the first step is to make sure you’ve listened to the whole question. Think about game shows where the contestant buzzes in an answer before the host finishes, but is wrong because the clue is in the second half of the question.

You may also need to ask the person to clarify the question before you answer. People find themselves in situations where they don’t know enough to ask. Think of the last time you went to a hardware store and said, “I’m looking for this thing that attaches to this other thing, and it’s supposed to do this, but instead it does that? You know what I’m talking about?” It may take you asking a few questions before both of you understand the issue enough for you to answer.

A tip is to repeat the question before you answer. This way you give the other person a chance to correct your understanding of the issue before answering.

Be brief

In Toastmasters, a table topics speech lasts one to two minutes. In most situations, we may only have a few seconds to get our idea across, especially if we’re talking to a busy executive or cranky children. A good skill to develop is the elevator speech. Can you get your idea across in the time it takes for a quick elevator ride?

For writers, a form of elevator speech called a pitch is a mandatory part of submitting our works for publication. Publishers need this too because they have to pitch their acquired works to bookstores and readers. This is the pitch I gave to a prospective publisher for my novel Amiga:

A middle-age woman seeks answers to her problems from a past she wants to forget. She may find them in an old, but powerful computer, the Commodore Amiga.

Would you be interested in a novel like that?

That is the power of a brief and effective answer. It raises interest and encourages more questions.

Be honest

We need to tell the truth, which might not be what the listener wants to hear. When we fail to do this, we undermine our credibility and cause ourselves greater trouble when the truth comes out later.

Consider this exchange at an CNN town hall immediately after the Stoneman Douglas shootings. Student Cameron Kasky asks Senator Marco Rubio, “Can you tell me you won’t be accepting a single penny from the NRA?” Listen to how he replies.

As a parent whose children have passed their teenage years, this exchange seemed weird to me. Usually, it’s the adults who ask the questions and the teenagers who hem and haw!

It would have been better if Senator Rubio came right out and said, “No. I can’t make that promise, and here are the reasons why…” The audience would have booed, but he would have offered a starting point for further discussion. But by evading the answer, he only raised the frustrations of an already upset audience. He also came off as insincere and condescending because he avoided telling people where he truly stood. By doing so, politicians lose credibility. When we try to please everyone, we wind up pleasing no one.

It’s not just politics where people do this. We do it in our personal and professional relationships. We don’t want to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, so we resort to white lies or remain silent. It’s much better for these relationships in the long run to be honest.

Answering questions effectively makes you more valuable

When you answer questions effectively and honestly, people can depend on you. They know you’ll tell the truth, and you won’t waste their time. They are interested in what you have to say. You can get your ideas across. They will listen to you because they know you’ve listened to them.

Answering questions isn’t just a basic skill. It’s a way to become engaged with your listener. By answering questions effectively, you help yourself as you help them.

Mastering Table Topics is available in paperback and eBook. You can find it at your favorite online bookstore or ask your local bookstore to carry it. Visit my Mastering Table Topics page for more information and look for #masteringtabletopics on Twitter for a daily question.