When Ronald Reagan was asked about his age during a presidential debate, he grinned and said: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Walter Mondale had to smile, and the long-simmering issue disappeared from the campaign.
Four years later, Michael Dukakis was asked how he’d feel if a family member were a victim of violent crime. He gave a logical but long-winded response – and got pegged as a soulless wonk.
That’s how powerful a single answer can be. Handled adroitly, it can disarm skeptics and win the sale. Fumbled, it can sink the most polished presentation.
But even experienced presenters can sometimes stumble during the question and answer session, says presentations guru Thomas Leech. The reason: They forget that the presentation isn’t over when you get to the last slide. The Q&A session needs just as much planning and rehearsal as the main part of the presentation, he says.
Leech has helped people prepare for countless sales presentations. Here are the most common ways that Q&As hit the rocks, he says:
- Not listening to the entire question. That’s a trap that often ensnares experienced salespeople, Leech says. You know what the customer will ask; you’ve heard it a dozen times before. You have a great response. And time is short. So to move things along, you jump in with the answer. But your customer hasn’t asked that question a dozen times, and cutting him or her off looks disrespectful. Listen every time as if it’s the first time.
- Answering the wrong question. You know your competitor has a lower price. So when the prospect asks how much a month she’ll have to spend, you think, “I know where this is headed. She’s about to challenge our pricing.” So you launch into a long discussion of value versus price. But that’s not what the customer asked about – and now others are wondering why you’re so defensive about price. Answer what’s asked. And follow up with, “Did I answer your question?”
- Fumbling the off-the-wall question. Often this question will come up from someone in the audience who’s only peripherally related to the buying decision, or who’s working his or her own agenda. For example, “Why are we talking about buying new equipment when we’re so short-handed? Shouldn’t we be hiring more people instead?” These questions put you in a bind: If you just dismiss them out of hand, you look arrogant and could create an enemy. If you try to answer them, you waste others’ time and could very well lose control of the discussion. Best strategy: prevention. Hand out an agenda at the beginning of your presentation. Then you can respond: “Great question, but our time is limited and as you can see from the agenda, it’s not what we’re covering today. I’ll be glad to discuss it with you later.”
- Excluding everyone but the questioner. Address your response to everyone, not just the person who asked the question. Make the question belong to the entire group. In a large gathering, repeat the question so that everyone can hear it. Or ask, “Does anyone else have that concern?”
- Contradicting your presentation partner. It happens all the time: “What I think Joe was trying to say….” If you can’t agree among yourselves, why should anyone else listen to you? Expand or qualify if you must. But if you contradict your co-presenter, you both look bad.
- Belaboring an answer. Say what you have to say and move on. The longer you go on, the more likely you’ll get in trouble.
- Answering without knowing. Never a good idea. Getting caught faking it is deadly. If you don’t know, say so. If you should know, say that too – and promise to find out.
Thomas Leech is author of “How to Prepare, Stage and Deliver Winning Presentations,” published by AMACOM Books. His clients include Fortune 500 companies and major public agencies. Info: www.winning-presentations.com
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