The Three Ways Leaders Master Q&A - And How You Can Too

 

There are few communication opportunities tougher than handling Q&A. Whether you are an executive facing tough questions from analysts on a quarterly earnings call, a tech entrepreneur trying to tell venture capitalists why they should hand over millions of dollars for a company that is far from generating profit, or a college graduate answering questions in an interview, the challenges are many. 

In my 20 years of working with executives and leadership teams, some of the most rewarding work I’ve been privileged to do is helping prepare my clients to shine in these high-pressure moments. Because while the pressure can be high, the questions unexpected and the tone at times adversarial, the payoff for performing can be great. 

 

Why Most Q&A Prep Can Be Counter-Productive 

Too little prep almost always results in a missed opportunity, with the speaker unprepared, rambling or failing to share the messaging the audience needs. But preparation can also be counterproductive, because the way people prepare for Q&A can actually impede their ability to shine in the moment. That’s because most preparation focuses on (1) compiling a list of questions likely to be asked, (2) drafting answers that will reply effectively, and (3) practicing so you can deliver these scripted answers accurately and consistently. 

This well-intentioned prep almost inevitably fails the speaker or team because the questions never exactly match the ones anticipated, and because they lead the speaker into a “scripted” style rather than a conversational tone. The speakers get too focused on trying to deliver what they had prepared, rather than using the Q&A forum as a chance to influence and shape thinking. 

Approach Q&A As an Opportunity to Influence 

Begin with the right mindset: Q&A is a chance to influence and shape thinking. Adopting this mindset will ensure your preparation is focused on a story you are passionate about sharing, rather than scripted answers you must deliver. 

For some perspective, The Humphrey Group’s client Paul Butcher, who leads Investor Relations for Canadian National. He and his team are highly decorated for their work: in 2021 Investor Relations Magazine named them best IR by a Canadian company in the US market, and best Corporate Governance and Disclosure, and in 2020, they won best IR in the Industrials sector. Here’s Paul on mindset:  "When we prepare our executives for quarterly investor calls and other interactions, we focus less on what we'll be asked and more on the narrative we want to share." 

Know Who Your Real Audience Is

The next step is to know whom you really want to influence in Q&A. If you’re 1-on-1 that’s easy (e.g., inspire the interviewer, get the job!). But in group settings, you need to assess who your key audience is – and sometimes it won’t be them asking the questions. In other situations that audience isn’t in the room, but will be listening in or reading what you say later. 

Paul’s thoughts: "Sometimes our real audience isn't the one asking the questions.  For example, we may be getting questions on an investor call from analysts, but the real audience we want to reach are the institutional investors who are listening in."

Earn The Right to Deliver a Message

Finally, when the live Q&A starts, you have to earn the right to influence. How do you do this? By answering the question! 

Most answers take too long to take shape. For instance, a person might ask, “What will you grow your sales by over 3 years?” And a typical response might be, “well, there are lots of factors. Historically we’ve grown 12% annually. Recent years though have seen a slowing. That’s why we’re investing in digital marketing. So, it should go up. I’d say a range between 10 and 15% is reasonable. Does that answer your question?” 

The most effective leaders pause and answer, “We expect between 10 and 15% annual growth over the next three years.” And then, having answered the question, they have earned the right to deliver a message. “And that growth rate is why we believe our company represents a strong investment opportunity for your private equity firm. With your capital, we believe that already-strong rate can be increased above 20% annualized.” 

By giving the audience what they need, they’ll be open to hearing your message.  

Summary

Q&A is a challenging communication interaction, but one that can provide insights into your audience’s thinking. It also provides an opportunity to shape, strengthen and influence that thinking. By approaching Q&A with the right mindset, knowing your true audience, and structuring your answers effectively (vs. scripting), you’ll be better able to inspire every time you answer. 



 

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