She's good on her feet. I remember saying those words to my boss back in 2008... about Sarah Palin. It was the morning after the Republican National Convention when she had introduced herself to the party and to our country as the vice presidential candidate. I thought her speech was fantastic--with all the hockey mom and lipstick-ness of it. And not to get too much into my political views, but my saying those words was an incredibly rare compliment to the party in question. Of course, as the campaign progressed, we all observed occasion after painful occasion when she was not, in fact, very good on her feet. She's incredible with prepared remarks but struggles when asked an unexpected or off-script question.
I can relate. I think a lot of us can.
I can prepare and deliver a presentation but dread the question and answer period that typically follows. I look forward to mentoring and coaching sessions with staff but worry they're going to press me on leadership decisions that aren't ready for release. I enjoy networking events but often wish the organizers would give out little question cards to everyone in advance with conversation topics.
While spontaneous, quick, and on-point responses come easily to some, the rest of us must prepare. I read a great Huffington Post piece by one of my favorite bloggers, Glennon Melton, who says we can reasonably anticipate a number of questions or circumstances and draft responses in advance. Then, when those anticipated situations arise, we're pulling prepared answers from our memory instead of trying to think through all the different considerations running through our heads: Why is this person asking? What do they want to hear? What do I want them to know? What should I definitely not say? What impression am I trying to create? It's these rapid fire questions in our own minds that cause us to stammer through an often disjointed, awkward response. Ugh, we've all been there.
So what can you do?
Ask yourself (and answer) questions in advance. The following questions cover just a handful of professional situations where we're put on the spot. If you take the time before your next meeting or event to answer these questions, you'll surprise yourself at how well prepared you feel heading into the event--and how everyone will leave the event/ or conversation thinking about your comment instead of your delivery.
- Who are you (or the more polite "please introduce yourself")? Have 2 introductions ready--one 10-second version and one 30-second version. We have to introduce ourselves all the time and yet few of us have good, interesting information ready to go. This literally is your first impression for any prospective client, employer, teammate or partner. Make it clear and you will exude confidence.
- What are you working on now? This is the alternate question to "what do you do?" Although it seems a bit overplayed in social and networking circles, it's slightly different than question #1 but conveys the same type of information.
- What makes you the expert? Rarely will someone in a typical professional setting come right out with a question this direct, but they will ask questions in more roundabout ways that get at this question. Answer it with a clear, nondefensive series of bullet points that highlight your relevant education and experience. It's not bragging; it's just the facts.
- When did this [topic you're presenting] work well? This question should be an easy one to answer, but for some reason when we're unprepared, we share an example and then add a bunch of caveats. Those caveats undermine our credibility as an expert. Let's agree not to do this anymore and just share your favorite example and not downplay it.
- What challenges have you faced in doing this work? Note at least two stories in your answer--one fun and one serious.
- What big opportunity are you pursuing next? You're already thinking three steps ahead by preparing answers to these questions, so show it.
- Who are you hoping to meet most? Although your answer to this question may vary depending on the conversation or event, the person asking travels in different circles and knows different people than you do. Maybe the degrees of separation can be lessened through an introduction they're willing to make.
- How can I help? People ask this of each other all the time. We usually say something like, "Oh, nothing, I'm all set" when, in fact, there is almost always something someone can do. Setting a simple target in advance can ensure you have an answer ready. It's easy to tell when people are asking out of sincere interest. Why not take them up on it?
- How can I get involved? Similar to number 7, you know you're getting through to people when they ask how to stay connected or find out more. Have a couple of options ready to share.
I've also been advised to have one good, clean joke in your back pocket. I've never gone the extra step to do this because, coming out of my mouth, I'm confident that it'd sound forced and awkward--and totally unfunny. However, if you can practice and master the delivery of a good joke, then definitely go for it.
Whether you're in front of a large audience, employee, professional acquaintance, or prospective employer, there are a few, simple things you can do to clearly and effortlessly answer questions, insert jokes, and keep the conversation flowing--or, like the phrase, "be good on your feet."