Responding to Questions

by janetkayfetz

Responding to questions requires good listening, quick thinking, focus, timing, and breathing. Whether a question is short and to the point or long-winded and fuzzy, you can think of your response as having three basic steps.

1. Comprehend. Identify the point and breathe.

2. Respond. Give a direct answer – the topic.

3. Expand. Elaborate on your response – the comment.

1. Comprehend. It is obviously important for you to understand a question before you can give a helpful answer. Concentrate hard when the question is being asked and do not interrupt even if you think you know where the questioner is going. Pinpoint the question in your mind, and then breathe to prepare yourself for your response. If you are unclear about the question, ask the questioner to clarify for you before you answer.

2. Topic. The first part of your answer should be a relatively short and direct answer to the question, and usually provides either some information and/or your opinion. Keep it to the point.

3. Comment. The second part of your answer is an expansion of your initial response. This is where you offer clarification, an example, a counterexample, more opinion. An answer without a bit of expansion can seem abrupt and even impolite.

This “respond with a direct answer and then follow with an expansion” structure is called Topic-Comment, and is the appropriate and expected way to communicate in a formal situation when responding to a question. All it means is that when giving an answer to a question, give the punchline first and the commentary second instead of the other way around. When you use a Topic-Comment structure, your listeners will perceive you to be on topic, direct, and focused. If you adopt a Comment-Topic style where you offer details and examples before giving a direct response, you may be perceived to be rambling and unfocused.

The art of the matter is to be able to manage all questions no matter when they occur — both during and following a talk — and to offer responses that are to the point, complete, but not too long and repetitive. If you respond to a question that comes up during your talk, it is vital to be able to segue gracefully back into your discussion. If you respond to a question during the question and answer period, it is important to know how to finish an answer and move on to the next audience member who has a question.