48 min read



This article is my highlights and notes of a book “Great Answers to Tough Questions at Work”

Table of Contents

  1. Book Links
    1. Scoring a Goal with Every Answer
    2. Taking Inspiration from a Master
    3. Learning What Not to Do
    1. Crafting That Message Your Questioners Need
    2. Determine Your Message First, Then Formulate Your Answer
    3. What Is the Message?
    5. Formulating Your Key Message
    6. Crafting That Great Message
    7. Combining Fact and Emotion in Your Message
    1. Great Stories Prompt Change
    2. Painting Pictures in the Minds of Your Audience
    3. Going Up and Down the Abstract Ladder
    4. Taking a Journey Down That Ladder
    5. Using Stories to Grab and Wow Your Audience
    1. Getting It Right in That Set-Up Discussion
    2. Having a Pro-Active and Reactive Plan
    3. Getting Your Preparation Right
    4. Turning a Negative Mindset to a Positive One
    1. How you Structure Your Answer is Critical
    2. Deal with the Bad – Then Gravitate to the Positive
      1. A = Answer or Acknowledge the Question
      2. B = Crossing the Bridge to the Positive
      3. C = Get Across the Content of Your Message (which is typically positive)
      4. D + E = Dangle an Example
    3. Making the Formula Work for You
    4. Phrasing Answers with Your Positive Words
    5. How to Avoid Echoing Negatives
    6. Moving from the Specific to the General
    7. Moving from the General to the Specific
    8. Dictating that Next Question
    1. Talk to the Heart before the Head
    2. Show Your Concern Right at the Start
      1. C = Concern
      2. A = Action
      3. R = Reassurance
      4. E = Example
    3. How the Care Approach Helps
    1. Shape Your Example to Give That Great Finish
    1. Watch Yourself Back and Adjust
    2. Project the Best Version of You
    3. Be a Great Performer
    4. Get It Right with Your Face
    5. Be Careful When Listening
    6. Rehearse, Relax and Succeed
      1. Talk Warmly – As If to a Friend
      2. Take That Big Breath
      3. Go Slow to Maximize Impact
      4. Take a Bath in Your Answer
      5. Emphasize Those Qualifiers
    7. Visualize Your Success
    1. THE DIRECTOR – Who Tony Alessandra Labels “The Great Initiator”
    2. THE THINKER – Who Tony Alessandra labels “The Great Analyser”
    3. THE SOCIALIZER – Who Tony Alessandra Labels “The Great Talker”
    1. Asking Great Questions Paves the Way for Giving Great Answers
    2. Guidance on That “What Do You Do?” Question
    3. Answering the Elevator Question
    4. Structuring Your Self-Introduction
    1. Ensuring Your Presentation Inspires Those Questions
      1. Ensuring Your Audience is Inspired to Ask
    2. Integrating Your Presentation and the Q&A Session
    3. Set Out the Question Guidelines Early
    4. Answers for Your Entire Audience

Great Answers to Tough Questions At Work - Amazon
Great Answers to Tough Questions At Work - Audible
Great Answers to Tough Questions At Work - Goodreads


Scoring a Goal with Every Answer

  • At the very least, your responses should involve explaining why you can’t answer a particular question and then adding something extra that’s useful and to the point.
  • What you should do is implement the “3 Ps” of the verbal communications world – Plan, Prepare and Practice.

Taking Inspiration from a Master

  • To put the crash in a vastly broader context, in order to highlight Virgin’s historically good safety record.

Learning What Not to Do

  • Whatever the situation, there will be positives he can point to that will be far better than what was originally said.
  • Answering a question directly doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to it. Under the rules of normal conversation you are allowed to say more. And in most cases you should.
  • You are in the position of the giver. You can be generous. You should give of your time, expertise and effort. And in this way you also shift the focus to where you want it – the place where your interests and those of your questioner and any wider audience overlap.


Crafting That Message Your Questioners Need

  • But when answering tough questions you typically don’t want to be giving just facts alone. People who give great answers do more than merely convey facts.
  • To give a great answer you need to get across a clear message, just as you would have had to do when managing those four-year-old footballers in the first chapter.
  • A message can contain facts – and that can be a good thing.
  • But a message is a bigger concept than one or more facts.
  • It is far more than that, as an effective message leaves the audience with something distinct to contemplate, react to and possibly act upon – and hopefully even to benefit from.
  • The message is the major underlying point that the audience ultimately takes away.

Determine Your Message First, Then Formulate Your Answer

  • You typically want to establish what your message is first, before working out the detail of a great answer.
  • To help you work out what your message is, ask yourself this question: “What do I want the listener/s to be thinking or feeling or doing after our conversation?”
  • You may or may not end up including your message directly in your answer. But your message is what will guide the direction of it. Once you are clear on what the message is, then it’s so much easier to work out how the answer should be phrased.
  • But once you have become clear in your own mind about the message you want to convey to a particular audience, you will make it so much easier to find the actual words you need to use.
  • By starting with the outcome of the conversation you have in mind, you can determine the message or messages to drive things towards that outcome by the way you word your answers.

What Is the Message?

  • And if she had taken the trouble to write down her central message beforehand to guide her, then the actual message itself was probably something even more succinct.
  • At the centre of every great answer is a great message that comes across clearly and credibly – and with some emotional punch.
  • A strong negative message can sometimes be appropriate and effective. Your accountant might usefully warn you: “If you don’t pay your taxes on time, you’ll have to pay extra.”
  • To underpin your great answers on your topic you need a message that is succinct, powerful and which will stick with your audience.


In this analogy, the leaves are the words that make up our answers. This is what listeners hear. But there needs to be considerable substance behind those words to ensure your answers are truly great. The stems represent the thoughts behind the actual words of the answers. The twigs are the bigger ideas that prompt the individual thoughts. The branches are emblematic of the policies and propositions behind the individual thoughts and ideas. The trunk represents the guiding philosophy that underpins those policies and practices. It embodies the central purpose of the tree. And the root system – upon which the tree’s whole existence depends – represents the core values.

Formulating Your Key Message

  • Fundamental to being able to give great answers is to have a good understanding of those asking you the questions and those listening to your answers.
  • The key word here is “empathy”. It’s the capacity to place yourself in the shoes of others.
  • So if you’re doing a presentation that will involve a question and answer session, you want to find out from the event organizer what you can about the audience:
    • How much do they know about the topic you will be talking about?
    • What might their existing views on it be?
    • What is it that they will be most wanting to know on the topic?
  • Your audience members will typically have an agenda in any situation. This is what they want to get out of the session and what they would like to get out of you. You can often work out what that agenda is.
  • So you need to work out how to appeal to their agenda and, if they want you, they will have to work out how to appeal to your agenda.

Crafting That Great Message

  • It boils down to something short and simple – but there should be much substance behind it.
  • Great messages are typically expressed in a single sentence; though sometimes it is good to break them in two.
  • While being succinct – even terse – the message says a lot.
  • In your initial planning it’s more important to get the message right for the particular audience and the particular situation, rather than for it to sound brilliant.

Combining Fact and Emotion in Your Message

  • A great message also contains an emotional element as well as a factual element.
  • A great message with a strong emotional component also has the stickiness factor, so your audience will remember it long after it’s been delivered.
  • If you come up with a fantastically snappy, powerful and memorable way to word the message, that’s marvelous.


Great Stories Prompt Change

  • Stories touch people emotionally. They can comfort. They can persuade. They can inspire.

Painting Pictures in the Minds of Your Audience

  • When you are telling stories you are, on the face of it, sharing a carefully constructed series of words with your audience. But what is really happening if you are doing it well is that you’re using those words to paint moving pictures in the minds of your listeners. If you’re really good you will be using these words and pictures to direct the emotions in the hearts of your audience.
  • When you do it supremely well you get people coming out with responses like “I can see what you mean”. What they are effectively saying, of course, is that they can visualize it in their imagination.
  • But the proof points can also consist of relevant facts and figures. They can be insightful observations. They can be metaphors or analogies.
  • They especially need to use stories and examples if they are dealing with the abstract. This is because abstract concepts, important though they often are, need to be illustrated in our minds to enable audiences to picture what is meant.

Going Up and Down the Abstract Ladder

His “Ladder of Abstraction” concept identifies the fact that there are different levels of language used that range from the general to the specific.

On the bottom rungs of the ladder are concrete things, which are easy to identify and see.

On the top rungs of the ladder are abstract concepts that are bigger, more ethereal and can be harder to envisage.

Highly effective communicators tend to metaphorically move up and down the ladder with considerable frequency. This helps to keep their audiences fully in the picture by allowing them to grasp both the general and the specific.

If someone gets stuck at the top of the ladder for too long they are in danger of talking as if viewing the world from that mythical ivory tower – making it hard for listeners to picture what they are thinking.

If someone gets stuck at the bottom of the ladder for too long they can bury their listeners in a heap of details, with the audience struggling to see how they fit together to make sense. They give too many fragments of the situation on the ground and we don’t get the much-needed panoramic overview.

Taking a Journey Down That Ladder

So that’s what needs to happen for your listeners when you give an answer that spells out a general concept. You should then take them down the ladder and present them with an example that is sufficiently vivid that they can see, hear and feel it – and possibly even care about it as well.

Using Stories to Grab and Wow Your Audience

Here’s what TRUTH stands for:

  • T = Topical. - If the case study runs past its sell-by date and is no longer significant to the latest developments, then ruthlessly toss it out of your treasure chest and replace it with a new one.
  • R = Relevant. - Most people tend to be more interested in what’s happening nearby. A story that has local proximity is bound to have greater impact with your audience in that area.
  • U = Unusual. - Where you can, look for the exceptional story that stands out by being unusual and has the biggest surprise or wow factor. Be aware that sometimes, when looking for the right example, it’s beneficial to seek out a typical rather than an extraordinary one. However, you still want to gather enough of the right colourful and fascinating details about it so that it will stick in the audience’s mind.
  • T = Trouble. - When choosing examples for your treasure chest, it may be more a case of picking instances where your organization’s product or service or insights helped overcome a group’s or an individual’s brush with some kind of trouble.
  • H = Human - So it can be important to show in a success story that what you or your organization did had a positive emotional outcome for one or more people.

Make Your Stories Pass the “So What?” Test


  • You want to get as much knowledge as you can ahead of each situation before the action starts.
  • When you’re going into a vital conversation that’s critical to your career or the future of your organization it’s exactly the same.
  • You want to get ahead in the game by finding out as much about the situation in advance as you can.
  • This enables you do some planning, preparation and practice.
  • The golden rule is, if at all possible, never allow yourself to be rushed into a challenging professional conversation without the chance of knowing what it’s about in advance and doing some preparation.

Getting It Right in That Set-Up Discussion

  • The trick is to think ahead when someone is approaching you to arrange that big conversation and get an idea of what territory you might be heading for.

Having a Pro-Active and Reactive Plan

  • In planning for important professional conversations, you typically want to have a pro-active plan and a reactive plan to deal with questions.
  • The pro-active plan involves having great messages and illustrations ready for where you can and should be getting across initial positive points. The reactive plan is your insurance policy readying you for tough questions that could conceivably be asked.

Getting Your Preparation Right

Here’s what AMEN stands for:

  • A = Audience. Whether you are dealing with a one-to-one conversation or a larger gathering, always identify your audience and focus your preparations on what they require. And if you don’t know the make-up or thinking of your audience – if it’s for answering questions as part of a presentation for a new client, for example – then do a little research to find out.
  • M = Messages. You’ll recall from earlier chapters, your encounter is an opportunity to get across your messages. So work out your headline message – and any additional messages you wish to convey as part of your pro-active and reactive plans.
  • E = Examples. Pick out examples and/or real life stories from your treasure chest that back up each of your messages most effectively for that particular audience, so you can come down that Ladder of Abstraction and bring them alive in the minds of your listeners.
  • N = Negatives. Write down all the negative questions that could be thrown at you. This is the key part of your reactive plan. Don’t hold back here. Phrase the negative questions in the toughest, most ferocious way you can. In reality the questions you actually get may well turn out not be worded as nastily as you phrase them. But the principle here is use the same approach that many effective sports coaches deploy when preparing their team for a tough contest: “Train hard, and play easy. ” So if you train for the harshest conditions, when it comes to the reality of playing the game for real it will probably be easier for you than it was in training – and you should perform all the better as a result.

Turning a Negative Mindset to a Positive One

  • What you do at this stage is write down things that will force you to focus in a realistically positive manner.
  • Why did the product you sold us break in the first five minutes of us using it?
  • Now it may well be appropriate that you express sympathy and probably apologize at the start of your answer, but we will deal with this in forthcoming chapters.
  • You will also need to formulate a positive headline message to sum up your approach.
  • It may be something like: “On rare occasions when something goes wrong with our products we make sure it’s rectified as soon as possible, that the customer is given an extra bonus as compensation and that we learn any lessons from what happened to ensure our products are constantly being improved.”
  • This headline message, combined with the “best things you can say” list, helps you to magically get into the right positive mindset to deal with the tough issue and gives you supremely useful material to inject into the conversation.
  • So in your list of “best things you can say” you can include points such as:
    • We have a policy of immediately replacing any product that proves less than perfect – and also giving the affected customer a high value gift certificate as a goodwill gesture
    • Tests and surveys have shown that the products that break in the first year of use are less than one in ten-thousand
    • In the unusual event of a product breaking we ensure it is examined by our laboratory so that we can work out what has occurred and how best to prevent the same thing from happening again in the future
    • We have a quality control team which is constantly looking at our processes to ensure there is focus on continual improvement on our systems and products.
  • Apply the “best things you can say” approach to your preparation to face all your tough questions.


  • When you’re asked a tough question, your standard practice at the start of your reply is something that takes a lot of people by surprise.
  • You need to get straight to the point, tell the truth and actually answer it if you possibly can.

How you Structure Your Answer is Critical

  • Exactly how you actually convey this truth as part of the whole of your answer is the critical thing.
  • While giving the appropriate factual information in your answer, you need to make sure you ALSO convey something extra.
  • The extra something you must add is a crucial positive message.
  • This positive message has to be related to the question – so it’s effectively providing an additional benefit for your audience.
  • This positive message should be inspired by and in harmony with your list of “best things you can say”.
  • In order to respond to the question in a way that is simultaneously bombproof and impressive, you need to know something really important: how to structure your answer.
  • But the structure is not something the typical human brain seems to work out intuitively for itself.

Deal with the Bad – Then Gravitate to the Positive

  • The First Golden Formula involves speaking exact truths that will stand up to robust scrutiny.
  • You may enable them to view the situation in a wider context.
  • Or you may show them helpful things that are beyond the confines of their question.
  • And you need to do it in such a way that you are saying what should be said, rather than allowing yourself to be a mere slave to any limitations in their question.
  • It’s important to understand that simply addressing the challenging aspect of the question is not enough to constitute a truly great answer.
  • Central to your great answer is the premise that once you have dealt with any bad stuff, you are then entitled to gravitate to the positive and say that something extra.
  • For example, the positive may well include saying what you are doing about the bad stuff in order to put things right.
  • The key thing to remember is this: Once you have given the initially requested response, then you are perfectly entitled – sometimes even duty bound – to convey a positive message that will be in the interests of your listeners.

A = Answer or Acknowledge the Question

  • If you know the answer and are allowed to give it out, then do so upfront.
  • But what about when you don’t know the answer – or for some legitimate reason you are under constraints not to disclose the answer?
  • If you can’t reveal what the answer is, then A = Acknowledge
    • You acknowledge openly that you can’t answer it.
    • The crucial thing here is to immediately explain WHY you can’t answer it.
    • If you briefly give the reason why you don’t know the answer, or why you’re not allowed to give it out, then this can instantaneously take the pressure out of what can otherwise be a tense situation.
    • Often there is an excellent reason for not knowing or not disclosing.
    • For example, you may not know because your research team is still working to find out what the answer is. So say so!
    • And – if practical and appropriate – explain that you will let the questioner know what the answer is as soon as you discover it. Make sure you follow through on this, because your credibility is on the line here.
  • This is an area that causes so many people so much grief, simply because they don’t say why they can’t reply. So they stumble, mutter, sweat, get embarrassed, look guilty, feel guilty and worse.
  • At this point you have given the start of a great answer, but giving a truthful, factual response upfront is typically just the beginning.
  • You must move things on – so that you kick that goal or hit that home run with your answer.

B = Crossing the Bridge to the Positive

  • A “bridge” in this context is a verbal tool that, having dealt with the question in your initial response, or acknowledged why you can’t, enables you to move things on to a more productive and useful space.
  • A typical bridge is:
    • “What’s really important is. . .”
    • “What everyone needs to understand is. . .”
    • “To put the situation in a wider context. . .”
    • “But. . .” (a supremely simple bridge)
    • “And. . .” (another simple bridge – and potentially a positive one)
  • The crucial thing is that, having dealt with any bad stuff in A, you must then use B to enable you to verbally cross over onto positive territory.
  • That leads on to C.

C = Get Across the Content of Your Message (which is typically positive)

  • Given that you typically have a number of positive messages you need to get across – inspired by your list of “best things you can say” – you need to select the message that relates most closely to the question.
  • It could be your headline message, or it could be one of your other support messages.

D + E = Dangle an Example

  • When you have conveyed your message and delivered the content of your key message, you then “dangle” an “example”.
  • So, a typical dangle is something like this: “A really good example of what I’m saying is. . .” or “Let me tell you a story about how it once worked in the past. . .”
  • This is where you come down that “Ladder of Abstraction” (see Chapter 3) to paint a picture in the minds of your audience so they can literally see what you mean.
  • People often struggle to know when to finish their answers. Ending on the example enables you to conclude crisply and decisively on a high.
  • Your example or story doesn’t have to be funny – it can be quite the opposite. But it gives you a chance to draw your answer to a clear-cut and authoritative ending.
  • And that’s what you do and keep doing every time you get a tough question.

Making the Formula Work for You

  • you need to prepare for a question from your line manager such as: “Isn’t it fair to say that your performance has been poor largely because of your lack of attention to detail, as underlined by those complaints from two customers, which indicates you are not suited to being a sales rep?”
  • We can start by compiling that list of “the best things you can say”. These include:
    • You have nearly always hit your monthly sales targets.
    • The majority of your customers are happy with what you’ve been doing over the past year.
    • Most of your colleagues who you have discussed your performance with believe you are making very good progress.
    • You are working at overcoming your challenge of needing to pay more attention to detail, and with the help of colleagues you have worked out a way to tackle it which is proving effective.
    • You have successfully been exploring new avenues for sales in other industries.
  • Now let’s apply the ABCDE formula to that horrid question which, to remind you, is:

    “Isn’t it fair to say that your performance has been poor largely because of your lack of attention to detail, as underlined by those complaints from two customers, which indicates you are not well-suited to being a sales rep?”

    • A: “No, it isn’t. Overall progress has been going very well, which is underlined by the fact that I have met my monthly sales targets in 11 out of the first 12 months and the overwhelming majority of my customers say they’re very happy with my service.”
    • B: “And what’s really important is that I have found ways I can take my performance to a higher level in future.”
    • C: “With the help of my colleagues, who have been very positive about my progress, I have a way of guaranteeing that the order forms are correctly completed by ensuring that I always check them over with the client before they are lodged. I now pass this tip on to new people joining the team. And I have been growing the market for the company by successfully exploring new avenues for sales in industries where we haven’t previously been active.”
    • D: “The best example of this is. . .”
    • E: “I have built up contacts in the mobile phone industry by using social media and have now been making sales to XYZ Mobiles. This has been so successful that I’m in discussions about what could turn out to be one of the biggest orders in our company’s history, valued at over £200,000 a year.
  • You’ve successfully come down the “Ladder of Abstraction” and dangled a big future opportunity for the company, which has been unearthed due to your initiative, so giving a powerful incentive for the company to keep you on in your sales rep role.

Phrasing Answers with Your Positive Words

  • Repeating negatives ensures that you generate a negative impression, and also traps your performance within the unhelpful vocabulary of your questioner.
  • You certainly need to respond effectively to any negative words underpinning negative questions, but the trick is to do so in such a way that you control the language.
  • When in conversation, the human brain isn’t very good at dealing with the concept of “not” in front of a negative.
  • So, repeating a negative word while putting “not” before it tends to reinforce the negative concept in the minds of your listeners.

How to Avoid Echoing Negatives

  • One way to avoid echoing back negatives is to use something called a “blocking phrase”. This means that you start your answer with something that instantly deadens the power of the negative words being used against you.
  • In other situations, which may be less clear-cut, a straight denial may not be justifiable or credible.
  • In these instances you can use a more neutral blocking phrase, such as: “Let me put it like this. . .”
  • Whenever negative words are thrown at you in a question, your blocking phrase should be used at the start of “A” in The First Golden Formula.
  • Using a blocking phrase and then carefully selecting the right positive words to follow it puts you in charge of your answer and of making a favourable impression.
  • This technique also stops you inadvertently buying into a false premise, and allows you to positively reframe a situation to your advantage.

Moving from the Specific to the General

  • This applies to a situation where you are asked about something very specific, which you don’t know much about – or something where it may be unwise to go into detail.
  • What you can do in these circumstances is apply a rule called “The Specific to the General”.
  • So, you can say something like: “I’m unable to talk about the details of this situation because of advice from our lawyers, but what I can say is that the key principles we follow when faced with this kind of situation are. . .”
  • Here, the first part about being unable to talk about the details is your “A” for acknowledge, the “B” for bridge is “but what I can say is. . .” and the rest of it will be your “C” for the content of your message.

Moving from the General to the Specific

  • This rule helps you shift the focus from a general situation that may be difficult to talk about onto a specific aspect of it that you may be much better equipped to discuss.
  • Hence this rule is called – as you can possibly guess – “The General to the Specific”.
  • So your answer can be framed something like: “This question relates to a subject which is outside my zone of expertise, but what I can tell you about is one particular instance in that area where we achieved a very positive outcome which was. . .”

Dictating that Next Question

  • The better you are doing with your answers, the more control you will have over the direction of the whole conversation.


  • The ABCDE formula has its limitations in situations where something has gone seriously wrong – and where your questioners and any audience beyond are likely to be deeply upset.
  • The key thing with these questions, where something very serious has happened, is that the person asking them is probably experiencing emotional pain.
  • So you need to connect with their emotional side and show that you care about them before you can move onto the more factual side of your answer.

Talk to the Heart before the Head

  • The formula is called “CARE” and reflects the fact that you do, of course, care about the emotional pain of the questioner, regardless of the rights and wrongs of any accusations they may throw at you.

Show Your Concern Right at the Start

C = Concern

  • You need to address the emotional aspect of the situation right at the outset – even in preference to giving a direct answer to the question.
  • When an apology is required, then saying “sorry” at the appropriate time in a direct and sincere way can have a beneficial effect and be the right thing to do.
  • The guiding principle is that no one can expect the conversation to develop constructively until the feelings of an emotionally distraught questioner are openly acknowledged.

A = Action

  • You need to show signs of doing something appropriate to back up your stated concern.
  • So whatever has distressed your questioner, you need to identify what is being done – or what will be done.
  • The point here is that you need to be doing something – and saying something about what you are doing.
  • Doing nothing and saying nothing is not an option when something has gone seriously wrong.

R = Reassurance

So, your overall reassuring headline message in a situation involving anything serious could be something like:

“We are doing everything we can to make sure those affected are properly supported. And we will do whatever we can to learn any lessons and to take steps to ensure that, as far as possible, something like this can never happen again.”

So it is wise to insert what are effectively little caveats to ensure your answer is realistic, such as by saying: “We will do everything we can to seek to ensure this will never happen again.”

E = Example

A useful example or story to end your answer on could relate to a similar crisis that once happened in your organization or another similar one – and where, despite a terrible initial incident, effective steps were taken in response that led to a happier future outcome.

How the Care Approach Helps

Admittedly it could be considered by some to be your line manager’s job to put forward positive changes to improve the process. But wherever you are in the hierarchy, there is something to be said for “managing upwards” when required, by helping those above you to make positive changes for the benefit of yourself and others.


Shape Your Example to Give That Great Finish

  • Think about the outcome you want your example/story to achieve.
  • Choose a relevant example or story in advance
  • Shape the story to make it work for the message you want to convey
  • To simplify the task, break your story into a start, middle and end


You have to conclude that a big part of these judgments is due to what’s interpreted from voices, facial expressions and what people do with their bodies.

Watch Yourself Back and Adjust

  • While that ideal image naturally differs from person to person, there’s a remarkable similarity in what people aspire to when it comes to that image of themselves they’d like to convey.
  • Popular choices include “confident”, “authentic”, “honest”, “friendly” and “impressive”.

Project the Best Version of You

When you feel calm, confident and in control, it’s so much easier to project these qualities to your audience.

Be a Great Performer

When answering questions – whether from one person or an audience of thousands – it’s important to realize that you’re actually performing.


  • Don’t have your arms permanently by your sides
  • Keep clear of the “Free Kick Defensive Wall” position.
  • Don’t clasp your arms behind your back in what the military call “standing at ease”
  • Refrain from folding your arms across your chest.
  • Finally, keep your hands out of your pockets while answering.


  • Don’t slump or slouch.
  • Avoid crossing your legs above the knee
  • Keep both feet planted on the floor – if they will reach – to give that “grounded” look and feel.
  • The “arms and hands open” rule still applies when sitting

Get It Right with Your Face

My key rule for facial expressions is that they should be in harmony with the content of what you’re saying at every point. Your face will (mostly) automatically take care of this without much concentration. But if your facial expression gets out of line with what you’re saying, it can be jarring for your audience.


  • Maintain eye contact with your questioner/s as much as possible.
  • Be careful not to let it turn into a staring competition.
  • Breaking eye contact in the wrong way sends a negative message.
  • Share your eye contact when you have an audience
  • The exception to the eye contact rule
  • Avoid excessive blinking.

Be Careful When Listening

  • While listening, it’s usually best to keep your head and face in neutral mode. Wait until the question is finished before giving an indication of agreement or disagreement to any proposition put forward. Never allow your head to nod up and down while taking in a question, as this implies agreement. If you want to test the wisdom of this in practice, get someone to ask you: “Are you a mad, dangerous criminal out to get people?” and nod your head up and down while listening!
  • It’s wiser to remain poker-faced until the question concludes and then to give yourself a couple of seconds of neutral-looking thinking time before giving your considered answer with the usual full expression.

Rehearse, Relax and Succeed

  • If you can get yourself in a relaxed but highly focused state, then the correct body language elements often fall into place. Having well-structured, pre-planned potential answers with excellent content makes it easier to perform and convey your mastery of your subject.
  • There are several things you can do to ensure you get yourself in the right frame of mind.
    • First, is to do some rehearsing.
    • For a really big occasion it’s also worth practicing with a colleague or friend asking you questions. The repetition of key lines, phrases and stories develops the neural pathways in your brain. When you can comfortably recall what you plan to say, it’s much easier to focus on how you come across.

Talk Warmly – As If to a Friend

  • Arch McKirdy made the point that you should practice your voice-delivery technique when preparing for a large audience by imagining you are talking to one friend. It’s so much less daunting to envisage conversing with a single familiar person, rather than lots you don’t know.
  • So, when practicing, picture a friend and say your words as warmly as possible. Aim to deliver the planned words in meaningful groups rather than as individual words. Focus hard on the meaning itself, to make sure that your pictured friend is then able to draw every possible ounce of meaning from those words.

Take That Big Breath

  • When you’re about to answer a question take a big, slow breath. Draw the air in from down deep – from your diaphragm – not shallowly from your head. To practice this, put your hand on your belly button and make sure this is where you instigate the breath.
  • The big, slow breath from down low makes you feel instantly refreshed. It’s an exhilarating way to go into your great answer with a positive mindset.
  • Taking the big breath at a leisurely pace avoids sending an adrenalin rush through your body, which can happen if you breathe too quickly.

Go Slow to Maximize Impact

Speaking more slowly than your normal pace helps you underline the significance of your content – and ensures that your listeners have time to absorb the meaning properly. Slowing it down gives more time to get your expression right, as well as your actual content. Listen in news reports to how slowly the highly persuasive Barack Obama or Bill Clinton speak when they have a really important point to make. By speaking slowly they make their points seem more profound.

Take a Bath in Your Answer

Arch McKirdy had a particularly memorable expression – “take a bath” in what you’re planning to say. Relax in the midst of your slow and naturally delivered content, so you and your listeners can actually enjoy taking it in.

Emphasize Those Qualifiers

  • Arch had a particularly effective technique for getting the emphasis right in every part of a sentence. The secret is to put any emphasis on what he called the “qualifiers”. These are the describing words – those adjectives and adverbs. So, if you’re talking about red apples, green apples and yellow apples, it sounds so much better for you to emphasize the qualifier rather than the noun – “apples” – that you’re describing.
  • Surprisingly, this emphasis is not typically achieved by saying the describing words louder. Rather, it’s a matter of saying them slightly slower and with a different tone of voice – making it clear to your listeners exactly what you mean.
  • When you ensure your voice goes down at the end of each sentence, it makes you sound so much more authoritative, in control and profound.

Visualize Your Success

There are uplifting advantages to visualizing and practicing to ensure you get your performance right. This will help you look, sound and feel great. And if you feel great, then it is so much easier to get your audience feeling the same way.


THE DIRECTOR – Who Tony Alessandra Labels “The Great Initiator”

  • These are extrovert, task-orientated people often found in positions of power.
  • The most important thing for the Director personality is getting the job done and hitting the right bottom line. This person tends to be direct, competitive and can appear impatient.

THE THINKER – Who Tony Alessandra labels “The Great Analyser”

  • Accuracy and detail are important to Thinkers. They are more concerned with getting the job done properly the first time round than with anything else. They tend to focus more on the task itself than the people involved in it.
  • Thinkers don’t want to be rushed into making decisions. They like time to reflect while utilizing their analytical skills. They will only feel comfortable making a decision when absolutely satisfied that all their concerns have been covered. Remember this as Bill Gates is carefully quizzing you.
  • When answering a Thinker’s questions, be aware that they want very specific, detailed information and a methodical approach with evidence and proof. Thinkers don’t typically exhibit sparkling personalities, but they can be deeply insightful.

THE SOCIALIZER – Who Tony Alessandra Labels “The Great Talker”

  • In communication terms, the Socializer can be most influenced by testimonials and stories that show the results of other people’s experiences. So, picking the right fascinating examples is especially important when you’re answering questions from a Socializer.
  • The way to connect with Socializers like Brian Mulroney is to work on the fact that they can’t resist telling and listening to stories. So make sure you include engrossing stories and captivating real-life examples as a key part of your great answers to them. Remember this when you answer Bill Clinton’s questions.
  • Whether you’re dealing with Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, John Major or Fred or Frederika from the accounts department, there’s great value in ensuring that your answers are formulated and delivered in the way that will best satisfy and impress them– and help you move towards that win/win outcome you’re seeking.


Asking Great Questions Paves the Way for Giving Great Answers

  • As far as possible, early on focus on what you need to know about them. This is where it’s good to remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and that using them in proportion during your conversations is advantageous.
  • You need to establish what it is out of all your offerings that can potentially be most useful to them. The key to discovering this can be found by asking more about them.

Guidance on That “What Do You Do?” Question

  • So, before answering the question “What do you do?”, you need to think about what it is you do that could potentially be of interest to other people to help formulate your best possible answer.
  • Telling people how you can benefit them is a key part of giving great answers to questions from prospects.

Answering the Elevator Question

  • Because time is limited, you need to have a straight-to-the-point elevator introduction ready for the occasion.
  • You ideally need a short, medium and longer version. That’s something like a ten-second version, a thirty-second version and a sixty-second version.
  • The ten-second version is a headliner when you are on a one-floor elevator ride or in a networking conversation, which requires a succinct introduction. But even in ten seconds you still have the opportunity to say what you can do for others. If they ask for your business card before they get out of the elevator or go to meet the next person, then you’ve done well! If they call you later, you’ve done even better!
  • The thirty-second version is ideal for those informal networking gatherings where it’s helpful to give a bit more information to arouse interest and provide a potential hook – by saying something intriguing – to encourage them to ask more. This version is also useful if you have to introduce yourself at the start of one of those exploratory business meetings between two or more firms, where you’re getting to know others around the table to see what business or collaboration might be possible.
  • The sixty-second version is typically for more formal situations. It’s like a mini-presentation. It can be used in the official opening part of some networking events, where they allocate a minute for you to stand up and answer the “What do you do?” question. In some places – such as at Business Network International breakfast meetings – they actually time you and a bell or buzzer sounds at the sixty-second mark. It’s amazing how much you can pack into a minute – typically more than you originally think – if it’s well planned. The aim is to say just enough so that the right people will come up to ask more later.
  • Never speed through your sixty-second talk. If you have too much packed in, you and your audience are much better served if you take a bit out rather than race through it, which can undermine your authority.

Structuring Your Self-Introduction

  • The introduction, by its nature, doesn’t have time to reveal everything. But if you do it well there is enough for the right target to be motivated to want to ask you more.
  • The ideal is to deliver your introduction with “planned spontaneity”, so that it’s practiced enough to be smooth and flowing but not so much so that it sounds over-planned or over-rehearsed. Ideally it should come across in a way that sounds almost as though it just popped into your head.


You’re doing what all those on speaking platforms should aspire to do. You’re not just being a mere deliverer of information – you’re being an enlightener. You’re being an educator. And you’re being an audience shifter. You’re pointing your audience members where they need to head in future and giving them inspired guidance on how to get there.

Ensuring Your Presentation Inspires Those Questions

  • A big part of the challenge is that you don’t just have to generate stimulating questions, you have to give answers that go beyond merely satisfying the question asker. You have to come up with answers that ideally work for every other member of the audience as well.
  • In the case of getting no questions, it probably means you haven’t forewarned or inspired your audience properly. In the case of a tough question, where you have nothing useful to say it probably means you haven’t prepared properly.

Ensuring Your Audience is Inspired to Ask

  • Just as throughout a highway network there’s more than one “signpost” to an important place, ideally you will signpost the Q&A session several times in at least a couple of ways – thereby building expectations that a fantastic opportunity to pick your brain is lurking over the horizon. Apart from making an initial announcement about the Q&A session, when you touch on a particularly fascinating area of your subject you can further prompt your audience by saying “when it’s time for questions, you might want to ask more about this”. You need to have enough signposts and enough captivating material so that at least some audience members will be salivating at the prospect of asking you something.
  • Also, if there’s a particular reason to stay away from any aspect of the subject then signal this beforehand. For example, if the head of your company is speaking after you then you might want to suggest that any questions on company policy be saved for your leader. Questioners, being human, won’t always stick to “the rules” you lay down. But the good thing about mentioning the rules first is that it is then much easier to remind the miscreant questioner or speech maker that they’re going against what you’d set out earlier – rather than introducing a rule on the spot and looking as though you’ve done it just to avoid their question.
  • With the Q&A session in mind, one thing to be aware of when crafting your talk to inspire questions is that audiences don’t typically just want a whole lot of facts on the designated topic. They want your take on it.
  • There are things you can and should do to make sure that you get questions in the right way, to fuel the session.

Integrating Your Presentation and the Q&A Session

  • As you now know, answering questions is not just a chance to deliver facts. It’s also an opportunity to convey a message or a series of messages. It is exactly the same with presentations.
  • Putting the two elements together allows you to have more control over the Q&A part. And the key thing here is to take control of it. You are there to serve your audience, but taking control of the questions part in an enlightened way is done in their best interests as well as yours.
  • “What is it you want your audience to be thinking or doing or feeling at the end?” Once the answer to this is established, then everything in the presentation should go towards achieving it.

Set Out the Question Guidelines Early

  • I advocate having a “roadmap” section in talks that outlines where things will be going in both keynotes and workshops. Typically this roadmap should be unveiled fairly close to the beginning, but not absolutely at the start. It’s usually better to place it a few minutes in, after you have delivered a profound attention-grabbing opening. Audiences tend to like an early roadmap because, just as on a scenic bus tour, they want to know something about the destination you’ll be taking them to and what the points of interest will be along the way. Then, when they get to each point, they feel reassured and excited that they’re exactly where you said they would be. This also applies to the timing and any rules about questions. In the roadmap section, tell them whether you would welcome questions at any point throughout or whether you would prefer them to keep their questions for a designated Q&A session – and if so, when that will be.

  • In a keynote it’s especially important to endeavour to set out the guidelines before the first question is lobbed at you. Then you can rightfully say that you’ll come to that point in the Q&A session – or that the point will be covered further into the talk. As your talk is hopefully carefully structured, you don’t want to have to reorder it on the run just because of a random question. So you can acknowledge the question and say you’ll answer it at the appropriate point. You can even ask the questioner to remind you in the Q&A session if they haven’t received the information or opinion they want. Audience members will generally be happy that you’re sticking to what you said you would do. In this way you get to deal with questions at a point when you have built up that shared understanding of the topic with your audience, so everyone is in a better position to appreciate both a good question and your great answer.

  • As to the timing of questions in a keynote, my recommendation is normally to have the Q&A session near the end but not absolutely at the end. The advantage of this is that you – as the speaker – get to keep control of those vital last words at the close of your time on the platform, which guides your audience towards what you want them thinking, doing and feeling at this vital concluding moment. If you have the Q&A session at the very end, then your final point will finish on whatever topic you’re asked about last. However insightful the final question is, it may not fit with what’s best for you to conclude on for that audience on that topic.

  • As many people are reluctant to ask a question at the start of the Q&A session, it can be wise to have someone lined up to ask that first question. It may be someone who asked you a question privately earlier in the day, or someone you know is good at confidently asking pertinent questions. As a back-up, in case there are no immediate volunteers, you may also want to have a couple of questions in mind yourself that you can throw in by prefacing them with “I’m often asked. . .” or “Before I began someone asked. . .” and answer these questions. This will hopefully warm things up for other questions to flow.

Answers for Your Entire Audience

  • The challenge is to talk to the questioner in such a way that everything is relevant and engaging to everyone in the room and, where there’s a live hook-up, electronically beyond.
  • This should be reflected in your eye contact. While listening to the question, it’s right to focus just on the person asking it – and this will help ensure you listen as carefully as you should. But when it comes to your answer, make a point of allowing your eye contact to roam around the whole audience to ensure they know your answer is for them as well. When there’s a virtual audience outside the room, look down the camera lens periodically to ensure your remote participants feel included.
  • you should normally aim to capitalize on the question, however narrow, and make a response that will involve and captivate the wider audience. Your lifeline here is the “specific-to-general” approach.
  • You can use the specific-to-general technique to underpin an answer following the ABCDE formula. So very briefly answer or acknowledge the specific question, but then use the bridge to widen things. A bridging line could be “What will interest everybody here is. . .” or “To broaden the point then. . .” or “To give you an answer in a wider context. . .” The content of your message should be something that has relevance for the whole audience. Then, when you dangle an example, pick something from your treasure chest of case studies and stories that will appeal to all.

  • When you’re in a situation where not everyone in the audience may have heard a question then it’s good to repeat it, though don’t repeat questions routinely unless poor acoustics or microphone problems make this necessary. Normally, if you don’t understand the question, then immediately invite the asker to clarify it so your grasp of the question is clear.
  • not all questions on big occasions are brilliantly worded. So if it’s a sloppy or unclear question, you can take the opportunity to reframe it, saying something like: “I take it that what you’re essentially asking is. . .” and proposing a pithier, tighter version of the question in your own words before answering it.
  • If the question is one of those rambling, multi-pronged ones, which is effectively a series of questions, then you’re entitled to focus predominantly on the prong that suits you best – and that you judge will be of most interest to your audience. And if, due to the asker’s incoherence, it will be too exhausting for everyone to ask a series of clarification questions, you might find it better to respond to a fragment of the question that you do understand. It can be a response like: “I’m sorry I can’t quite grasp every detail of your question, but I would like to respond to your reference to X. . .” This can be a useful technique for any question that’s too convoluted to follow. In the interests of keeping the show going, it can be best to use a part of the question you did grasp as a prompt to say something helpful on that aspect.
  • One thing to avoid doing too often is to praise the question. “That’s a good question” has become a highly repetitive cliché. When the question is a tough one it can sound too deferential to the asker, as if you are groveling before them. And praising the question is a particularly dangerous thing to do with a highly critical question.
  • Another thing to avoid in most cases is saying “Have I answered your question?” at the end. Occasionally it may be appropriate, but in most cases it signals unnecessary uncertainty. Because you are the one who is answering the questions, you are in the position of authority. So unless there is particular reason to display uncertainty, it’s better to confidently and profoundly say what you know to be true and say it in a way that projects confidence in its value. If the audience feels that you haven’t answered, they will let you know!
  • Audiences notice when you do it well – especially when the questions are tough. So with the right planning, preparation and practice, it’s well worth embracing opportunities to get yourself out there in front of challenging Q&A sessions to enlighten, enthral and bedazzle with your great answers, not just for the individual questioners but for everyone.