Sunday, December 09, 2007

How to Handle Tough Questions

I just finished a book that should be on the reading list of all entrepreneurs, In the Line of Fire, How to Answer Tough Questions When It Counts by Jerry Weissman.

Jerry is a well-known corporate presentations coach and is frequently brought in to help CEOs prepare for their IPO roadshow. The book builds on his first one, Presenting to Win, and is terrific.

Having given and sat through countless presentations, it is often not the subject matter of the presentation but the ability of the presenter to cogently respond to questions and concerns that wins the day. The book's aim is "not so much to show you how to respond with the right answers as it is to show you how to establish a positive perception with your audiences by giving them the confidence that you can manage adversity, stay the course, and stay in control."

There are three classic flawed responses to questions that will haunt the presenter: defensiveness, evasiveness, and contentiousness. The book provides examples of Trent Lott and Ross Perot that bring the damage of these reactions home. After team's present, it is often commented that the CEO seemed evasive, did not address the question, became combative, etc...all reactions that doom the pitch.

Here are some of his suggestions:

  1. actively listen to your questioner - do not rush to answer the question, instead make sure your body and mind are concentrating and listening to the question
  2. identify the key issue at the heart of the question - questions may drag on and ramble, it is your job to work out the key concept driving the questioner's concern - is it market size, competition, pricing model, technology, team dynamics, location....
  3. paraphrase the question to confirm that you understand the key issue being raised
  4. do not answer until you see visual affirmation that the key issue you paraphrased is in fact the questioner's issue
  5. answer all questions with care and confidence - there are no irrelevant questions
  6. anticipate and recognize the universal issues - management - do you have the right people? is your team complete, competition - how will you meet and beat the competition, market - how big is the market, business model - sales, delivery, and pricing model, contingencies, timing, problems, intellectual property....
  7. know your Point B - the audience starts the meeting at Point A, Point B is where you want them to get to - what is your goal
  8. speak to WIIFY - or what's in it for you - people need a reason to act and it must be their reason, not yours
  9. prepare and practice
  10. be agile and respond thoughtfully to questions
  11. never lose control - be slow to answer and slower to anger
Weissman mentored CSCO, YHOO, INTU, MSFT, and many others through their presentations and q&a preparation. The book needs to be on your shelf and the models skills in your arsenal.

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