Elon Musk informs us that "boring, bonehead questions are not cool." You know what else is not cool? Dismissing questions with the words "boring" and "bonehead."
Pundits hashed over Musk's takedown of an analyst during an unusually combative earnings call in May. (He later apologized.) But among talk of the billionaire's sleeplessness and stress level, one salient fact went unremarked. For leaders, answering questions in public can be risky. Unscripted, with barriers down, they may come off as clueless, defensive, or shifty.
"How leaders answer questions is enormously important in building trust," says CEO coach John Millen. "If you come into a high-stakes situation talking to investors or employees or regulators and don't communicate properly, there can be huge problems."
While some leaders relish Q&As as opportunities to show off their empathy and quick wit, others experience everything from stomach butterflies to existential dread. Here are some strategies to cope:
You don't know what an audience will ask. But you can guess. That means you can write out answers to questions you expect and rehearse them. "There is a certain confidence that comes from writing it out: knowing that this is your best possible answer," Millen says.
Millen advises leaders to prepare responses to what journalists call the "Five Ws and How." (The Ws are who, what, where, when, and why). Also, "Pay attention to any sensitive questions," he says. The most important response "is to the question you don't want to be asked."
2. Raise it first.
Another defense against unwelcome questions is to proactively address them in your remarks. At some point toward the end (so that the audience doesn't fixate on it through the rest of the presentation), acknowledge the elephant in the room: We may have to close that production line. We are unable to continue sourcing locally.
"That way, when it comes up again from the audience you could say, 'Right. As I said earlier...'" Millen says. "Then you are reinforcing the answer, and it feels more truthful and honest." You also avoid letting an angry questioner set the tone. "You can get it out there on your own terms," he says.
3. Defer to experts.
Founders know more about their companies than anyone. But as companies grow, that knowledge becomes less comprehensive. So let employees know, as a matter of course, that you can't answer every question--but that the team can. Then make your experts available whenever questions will be asked.
"Build up people around you so that they are willing to step up and have a voice," says Jo Miller, founder of Be Leaderly, a career strategy firm for women. During Q&As, "call out your experts and encourage them to share the answer." That tactic not only takes pressure off of you, Miller says, but also develops your team members' confidence and leadership skills.
4. Avoid "I don't know."
Even if experts aren't handy or can't answer a question, you can still do better than a straight-out confession of ignorance. Miller recommends language like, "That is just what we are trying to determine" or "I don't have enough information yet to answer your question."
Alternatively, "You can just turn it back on the questioner and say, 'Why is that important to you?'" Miller says. The response may give you more information to work with--or an opening to answer a different question entirely.
5. Target one part of multi-part questions.
Often questioners, knowing they get a single shot, will pack several questions into one. Such queries are hard for audience members to hold in their heads; they can also irritate those impatient for their own turn to raise an issue. That creates an opportunity for the speaker to cherry-pick what parts to answer.
"This technique is often used by essay writers to help the reader to better grasp the main idea and leave out irrelevant details," writes Tom Jager, a London-based writer on a blog for the company LeaderValues. "Whether you don't want to address some of the aspects or simply don't know the answer, you can focus on some part you are comfortable speaking about."
6. Defuse antagonists.
Sometimes people don't have real questions, just axes to grind or criticisms to level. Or they just like to hear the sound of their own voices. Women leaders, in particular, face the prospect of men wanting to enlighten them, Miller says.
In those circumstances, don't get defensive. "The best way to deal with those questions is to have a confident and unapologetic posture," she says. Adopting a tone of amusement can help get the audience on your side, she adds: "Respond as though you are enjoying a game of intellectual ping-pong."
7. End on a positive note.
A Q&A, like a speech, ideally will end with a sense of uplift or momentum. A good time to cut things off is after a question with an encouraging response. If all the questions are negative, you'll need to finesse the situation. "Tell them they are asking the right questions. The company is facing a tough situation," Millen says. "Then bring it back to your overall message. They shouldn't leave with a bad taste in their mouths."