When it isn't in the script ... Five top tips for answering difficult questions

When it isn't in the script ... Five top tips for answering difficult questions

Photo Credit: Marcos Luiz

This week I learnt a lot about the Philippine economy. I was invited by the UK-ASEAN Business Council to attend the Philippine Economic Briefing given by no less than seven cabinet ministers. The event was part of a world tour the Philippine government is conducting to drum up international investment interest in the fastest growing economy within the ASEAN region. The ministers addressed a packed room delivering polished performances, extensive economic data and an overview of their strategic priorities and projects during the current Presidential term. The focus was on infrastructure investment, with a “Build Build Build” programme of 75 infrastructure projects running into the trillions of dollars.

Potential investors were able to ask questions during a panel session and were duly answered – some better than others. One question in particular came from an investor who asked about the flagship rail projects and the 1900km of new railway tracks being built. He stated he had first heard about one rail project proposed back in 1984, and was asking why it hadn’t happened, and what was different now. Oops. That wasn’t in the script. The question was however skilfully answered by the Secretary, Department of Transport - but only because he had historic knowledge of the project.

This reminded me of my days as a spokesperson for NATO and the EU. A polished delivery can be given, but as soon as the floor is open to questions, presentations, speeches and statements won’t always provide the answers. If not sufficiently prepared, this can pose a reputational risk. Worse still, if not handled currently the results can shift the original agenda and create a crisis. So here are my five top tips when preparing for the unexpected and to mitigate this risk when dealing with difficult questions when under the spotlight.

1. Issues, disputes and problems

Key messages will always cover all the proactive elements and these should be incorporated into answers. Invariably however there will be issues, disputes and problems in the background that you will not want to be asked about, but may need to respond to. Know what your issues are, ensure a risk analysis has been conducted and have an approved response.

2. Third parties

Where there are third parties or wider stakeholder impacted or involved, ensure you have knowledge of who they are and how they are impacted/involved. Be aware of any ongoing dialogue with these parties, the context and the extent of what you can say. Be mindful of any commercial, legislative or political considerations.

3. Know your facts

This may sound obvious, but you should have a good solid base knowledge of your subject matter beyond your organisation. Fully understand any recent or topical industry issues, recent news reports or relevant rules, legislation and practices. This is essential to avoid a slow blink moment, as we saw with Ted Crockett in this clip:

4. Note all questions down and repeat back

For me this is a no brainer. Sometimes a questioner will start with a lengthy statement followed by multiple questions. Others will ask a confusing question, a leading question or make an assertion expecting you to agree. Or sometimes it will be a straightforward question. In all cases, taking brief notes helps to sharpen your focus, understand the question and mentally prepare the answer. It also provides a personal record of after actions, for example when you may have insufficient knowledgeand need to follow up.

5. Legacy matters

However great your message is, however wonderful the product is or lifechanging the initiative is, attention can be quickly hijacked or credibility damaged if a legacy issue is brought up. Make sure you are briefed on the issue, as well as the most up to date position and response, without going into great detail. This was the case with the 1984 rail project at the Philippine Economic Briefing.

There are of course many other elements to consider, train and prepare for. Seek guidance from your corporate communications department for the latest position statements, press releases and known reputational risk issues, as well as company policies and style guides on language and tone. Also consult with operational and legal heads when appropriate and refer to the crisis communications plan if relevant.

These five tips can of course be applied in any context or setting. They are core communication skills and best practice. In the race to get out our message however, we can often overlook the difficult questions we may be asked. Be prepared for all types of questions – just as the leaders giving the Philippine Economic Briefing were. Failure to do so can inadvertently expose a reputational risk.

More reading

UK-ASEAN Business Council

The Philippine government Build Build Build programme

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