09/05/2011

By Michael Dodd, Communications Speaker

The toughest professional questions to the leaders of small and medium sized businesses come primarily from just three areas.

They’re asked by customers, prospects and your own employees.

These rate even higher tough questions from bank managers, journalists and other sources.

How do we know this?

The information comes from the pre-session surveys that I’ve been conducting with members of business leadership groups before running master classes on “Give Great Answers To Tough Questions”.

Out of these three areas, it’s the nightmare questions that come to you from your own people which are often the ones which are the most challenging.

There are two particular reasons for this.

Insiders know the troublespots

One is that questions from your own people can spring from a much more detailed factual basis than questions from outside.

Your managers and staff often know where the bodies are buried (metaphorically speaking only, one would hope).

So living in the business day-to-day as you do, they know the challenges and the underlying facts in their specialty area as well as - and in some cases better than - you do.

When I run exercises preparing leaders to answer tough questions in press conferences I like to get some of their own people to pose as journalists.

This is because, however much research I’ve done on their organisation or industry, their own people have the inside information to lob especially explosive verbal hand grenades at the weak and uncomfortable spots.

If your people ask “Are you going to lay off staff in this particular area?” or “Why can’t we have a pay rise given the great demand forecasts?” then they may well have solid underlying reasons for asking.

So the answers you give to inquiries from your own experts need to be particularly bombproof.

You need to live with your answers

The second reason that questions from your own people can be particularly tricky is that you have to live with your answers day-in day-out, in a way that isn’t quite so obvious with a prospect or customer who you only see occasionally.

If you promise something you can’t ultimately deliver on, or predict something that turns out not to be true, then you can be potentially reminded of it on a daily basis….or an hourly basis if it’s your PA!

As you’re effectively on show with your own people in all your working time, there’s a particular need to get the answers to their questions spot on.

The need is all the stronger in these days when your answers can be tweeted, emailed and blogged to a wider audience in an instant.

Plan, prepare and practice

And the best way to ensure this is to approach the nightmare in-house questions in the same way as a sports professional approaches a big match — you plan for it, you prepare for it, you practice for it.

When one of your people asks “Is our company going to survive the current downturn?” you don’t want to be giving an answer off the top of your head.

But neither do you want to say “I’ll go away and check the figures and get back to you on that.”

Contrary to what is often thought, when people are really good at answering tough questions without notice it usually isn’t because they are good at “thinking on their feet”.

It’s more likely to be because they’ve anticipated the question and worked out a factually correct, practical and hopefully inspiring answer in advance.

You can do the same — and impress those people who are hardest to impress — your own people.