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Ask the Expert

Q. I'm concerned about how I handle questions that come up during and after a presentation. I notice that guests on political talk shows are very good at sidestepping tough questions or questions they apparently don't want to answer. What advice can you give me on how to deal with this type of situation?

A. Be wary of copying the techniques of the political talk show guest. For public figures, the interview is really, in essence, a prepared message. These folks are trained to say only what serves them and to speak in sound bites that have a chance of re-circulating and thus reinforcing the basic message being sold. Talk show guests tiptoe around the question so that, instead of shedding light, too often they cloud public discourse and create an impression of someone dodging the question. When they practice this kind of evasion, the audience may think twice about their credibility. If you do this in a live presentation, your listeners are bound to become more aggressive in trying to pin you down. And they'll dismiss you as not credible.

There are basically three techniques you can use to avoid falling into this trap when you're responding to questions.

Bridging. This allows you to move from one point to another, typically from a narrow point to a broader one, by using a transitional statement ("That may be true in some cases, but we should look at this issue in the broader context ...") In this example, you've inserted a phrase that serves as a bridge from a question to a different but related area. It lets you respond on your own terms, bringing in information to support your main message. Be careful, however, not to move so far afield that you appear to be evading the question completely. Aware of it or not, by the way, we employ bridging in everyday conversation with friends and acquaintances, when we seamlessly shift conversation from one idea or topic to another.

Reframing. This is, as the name suggests, a way to put the question differently. It can be done to improve or re-focus the question ("If you're asking if we plan to re-organize our business in the near future, the answer is that we're always ready to make whatever changes are needed to stay ahead of our competitors. But we will do so carefully, as we always have, to avoid any disruption to our employees and customers.") Reframing helps the questioner ask a better or more appropriate question. There should be a close connection between the original question and your reframed response. Be careful to avoid moving from the question to an unrelated point. Stay within the same general frame, while you use the question to move in another, but related, direction. And, especially, be careful not to make the questioner feel that the question posed was in some way not a good or appropriate question.

Redirecting. This one takes you from a question you can't answer, or one that, for good reasons of your own, you choose not to answer. Redirecting shuts off the question and assertively introduces a new line of thought ("I can't answer that because there's pending litigation, but I can tell you that ...") You must be practiced at redirecting, since you can be seen easily as evading or dismissing the question. You also risk offending the questioner. So use this technique sparingly.

A final note. Once you've bridged, reframed, or redirected away from the original question, don't return to it.

This question was answered by Frank Carillo, president, Executive Communications Group. He and the rest of his team are ready to answer your questions about presentation skills.

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