by Steve Adubato, PhD

It can happen at an annual shareholders meeting or at a presidential press conference. It occurs when a manager meets with his or her employees around a difficult subject or at a sensitive parent/teacher meeting. Consider this: A tough, direct, and probing question is asked of someone in a position of leadership and he is absolutely stumped.

We’ve all seen it. The communicator-in-chief is floundering for some meaningful response. He fumbles, rambles and basically looks bad. Reputations are damaged, morale is lowered and opportunities are missed. Nothing good happens when the person in charge isn’t prepared to answer a tough question in front of a group of their key stakeholders.

Some important questions need to be asked about the Q&A process and why so many organizations and individuals don’t get it right.

Q—Can you actually prepare for a Q&A?

A—Absolutely. It is called role-playing. The process is pretty simple. A leader gets his most trusted advisors and team members in a room. They imagine they are in a public forum and then identify the most difficult questions that are likely to be asked. Then they fire the questions off in rapid succession in an aggressive, somewhat confrontational fashion. The meeting leader responds. Sometimes it is videotaped, but it doesn’t have to be. The important part is the honest, critical feedback the team members provide. For example; “That response was too long and your message wasn’t clear…you could have re-framed the negative premise of the question in a much more positive and constructive fashion.” Or, “Don’t hunch over and make sure you look the questioner directly in the eye.” Then you do it again with the meeting leader taking this constructive feedback and incorporating it into the next role-play.

Q—But in most of these meetings, aren’t audience members simply looking for information that answers their questions? Is this Q&A exercise really necessary?

A—Many of these meetings are about a lot more than dumping data. They are about dealing with people’s emotions, fears and anxieties as well as their frustration, confusion and sometimes their anger. Much of this comes out in their questions. Therefore, these Q&A preps are essential because they help the communicator-in-charge empathize more with their audience. Too many meeting leaders simply ask themselves what they want to communicate to a particular audience. Savvy communicators take a more audience-centered approach and ask themselves; “If I were in this audience, what question would I ask and why?”

Q—Isn’t this something that only public relations and communications experts should be handling?

A—Not necessarily. A critical aspect of any leader’s job is to communicate in a concise and compelling fashion under challenging circumstances. Many leaders don’t step up in these situations because they haven’t practiced, they haven’t been coached and they haven’t been given honest feedback as to how to improve their performance. Going through this Q&A process will not only make you a better communicator on your feet, but will build self-confidence. It is about having executive presence, which doesn’t happen by osmosis, but rather through trial and error.

Q—But in a Q&A, why can’t you just simply answer the question directly?

A—Because these situations are about a lot more than answering questions. They offer an opportunity for leaders to build support for difficult initiatives as well as minimize opposition to a proposed change. They are opportunities to clarify points and calm those who are afraid or concerned. Finally, Q&A preps are about communicating important messages and themes, regardless of the question asked. Of course you must be responsive and candid in the way you answer, however, great communicators are proactive and bridge or transition to a main message. Simply put, Q&A prep pays big dividends.