Clear Comm Consulting

Handling the hot potatoes: Answering tough questions from live audiences

Jan 1, 2005

You can feel the whole group cringe. The tough question comes zinging in from someone in the crowd and now the person with the microphone is on the spot. What do you do if you are the one who has been tossed the hot potato?

How about just smiling and saying, “Next question?”

HUMOR: At the very least, “Next question!” buys you a little time. It also lets everyone take a breath and relax a little. WARNING: It usually only works once and, no matter what, you must then go on to address at least some of what the person is asking. There is no substitute for being prepared before you step in front of an audience, but having humor as one of your tools gives you a great advantage.

SELECTIVE ANSWERING: Because you have the floor, you have certain privileges. Never forget that. If a person asks a complex, multi-part question, select the part of the question you want to zero in on and address that issue. (“Janet brings up a great point …”) Assuming there are others with questions, you can then move on without getting bogged down by a long and often difficult dissertation.

THE KNOWN DIFFICULT PERSON: If the questioner is a known quantity — always asking the off-the-wall question or bringing up uncomfortable issues among employees/stockholders/customers, etc. — use that to your advantage. If you judge nearly everyone in the audience is also uncomfortable with the area, say so. You can choose to stand up to the person right there (not usually!) or ask them to discuss their concerns with you after the meeting.

THE PRIVATE MEETING: And speaking of asking to speak with them later, having a private meeting with a key questioner can make a HUGE difference. One client I was working with recently said she went as far as going to the questioner’s home, having dinner with her and, amazingly, getting that difficult person completely turned around! While that may not be a realistic option for most of us, giving some one-on-one time to them, especially if they are an opinion leader, can be time very well spent.

GEE, I DON’T KNOW: I call it “falling on your sword.” Most of all, an audience wants you to be honest with them. If you don’t know the answer, say so and vow to find the answer … then follow up.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected].

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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