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Q&A is often the biggest fear for many panelists. What if I get asked a hard-ball question?  What if I can’t answer it?  What if I don’t get any questions at all?

And you have every right to be concerned if you are in front of any audience.  (I was going to admit that there may be audiences where everyone loves puppies – the topic, the moderator, panelists, and the audience – are all holding handing hands and singing kumbaya.  But then, that would make for a very boring panel discussion.  A great love fest, but not a lively and informative panel discussion!)

Did you know there is an art to answering tough questions?  I didn’t.  In fact, I didn’t even think about it until recently  – and I’m in the business of helping moderators and panelists be freakin’ brilliant!

My colleague, Michael Chaleff, recommended Jerry Weissman’s book In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions…When It Counts. Not only was I mesmerized by the thought process and methodology to answering tough questions, but Weissman uses presidential debates to illustrate his points!  How cool is that!  (For those of you who don’t know, I’ll be commenting on the 2019-20 Presidential debates – so the timing of reading this book is impeccable!)

I’ll summarize the key techniques outlined in the book – but if you are even mildly interested, you’ll want to pick up a copy.

Exercise time and traffic control during the key steps to the Q&A cycle:  Open the floor, recognize the  questioner, yield the floor, retake the floor, provide the answer.

Listen intently to the questioner.  Many panelists have failed when the question asked is not answered.  Weissman says, “Concentrate on the questioner’s pivotal words as if in slow motion….Resist thinking of the answer and instead listen for the key issue.”

Identify the “Roman Column” (this is THE most valuable skill!).  Unfortunately, the key issue (the Roman Column) isn’t as obvious as it might seem.  “It comes all wrapped up in a large knotty ball….[full of] misinformation, nonlinear right brain thinking, unprepared extemporaneity, and anxiety about standing up exposed in front of an audience.”

Buffer the key word.  The buffer is the first line of self-defense by reframing or paraphrasing the inbound energy of challenging questions.  Make it personal by adding the word “you.”

Answer succinctly.  This has as much to do with your preparation to ask the expected questions, without “launching into oratory or to wax eloquent” with new or tangential information.

Finish with topspin (the most sophisticated of them all).  After the panelist has answered the question, conclude with a statement (or two, but no more) that directly counters the challenge embedded in the question.

If you are even remotely worried about your upcoming panel discussion, not only READ the book, but do your homework.  You’ll look brilliant!

Related Articles:

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions


For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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