Tough Question? No Sweat

By Heather Baldwin

You’ve just been thrown a charged and challenging question by a key audience member and all eyes are on you. What’s the first thing you do?

  1. Start sweating profusely,
  2. Make a dash for the door,
  3. Fake an epileptic seizure, or
  4. Paraphrase and diffuse the question.

While the first three answers might sound appealing in the heat of the moment, the best presenters paraphrase the question. By stating the question in another form they deflect the challenge and control the meaning, says Jerry Weissman in his new book, In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions When It Counts (Pearson Education, 2005). But it’s not as easy as it sounds since challenging questions often are disguised in long-winded rants or angry accusations.

To paraphrase effectively, a presenter must first look beyond the rant to determine the centerpiece of the question – or as Weissman calls it, the Roman column, so named for the great Roman orators’ use of Roman Forum columns as memory triggers for speaking points. For example, say an audience member came at you with this: Wait a minute! You tell me your product is going to save us money and then you give me a sticker-shock price that’s twice as much as your competition asks? That’s outrageous! Where do you get off charging so much?

In a word, what’s the Roman column here? It’s simply price, says Weissman. “If you said overcharging, expensive or costly, you would be focusing on the outer wrappings of the knotty ball – in other words, the questioner’s feeling or emotion about the price of your product,” he explains. Price, on the other hand, “is the center of the ball, free of any other tangled strands,” he adds.

Here’s another example. Say an audience member said this to you: You look like a kid! I doubt you’ve been in this business long. I’ve been in this industry since before you were born and now you come in here and tell me how I should run my business. Where do you get off telling me what to do? What’s the Roman column here? It’s not age; age buys into the negativity of the question. “The issue is capability,” says Weissman.

Now that you know how to find the central issue in a challenging question, all that’s left is to use that Roman column in a paraphrased question. Simply bracket the single word between an interrogative word, such as what, why, how, does, can or is and a question mark, and you’ve got it. For example, to paraphrase the person’s question about price, you might say: What is our pricing rationale? Or, why have we chosen this price point? Or, how did we arrive at the price? “Notice that when you strip the charged words – sticker shock, twice as much and outrageous – out of the original question you neutralize the hostility,” says Weissman. “Then when you begin your answer you only have to address the price itself and not whether it is too high or too low.”

Similarly, the salesperson faced with the question about capability would paraphrase with something such as: What are my capabilities to offer you solutions? Or, am I capable of offering you solutions? Or, how do my capabilities apply to our solutions? These questions purge the hostility, says Weissman, and reposition the issue as a neutral question, thus allowing you to provide a positive answer that, in turn, will place you in a more positive light than your other three options.