Respond Well to the Unexpected Question

One of the hardest parts of public speaking is taking questions. Like at a job interview where the most ready candidates have planned for the commonly posed questions but still wonder about what they may not have planned for, we speakers are fully alive to being blind-sighted by that question we cannot answer.

What do you do when put on the spot by an unexpected question?

Act in a way that opens your mind. With an open mind you don’t feel the pain of being blind-sighted.

First, handle the voice in your head.

Those of us who get worked up by being unprepared will respond in our head first with self-doubt when the unexpected happens. “Oh, no, how do I respond to this?” or “I don’t know what to say” or “I feel unprepared” or “Here I go again – I can’t handle this” or “I’m so dumb.”

Any of the above responses leads only to anxiety because our mind has just closed. We stare blindly, stammer a few remarks and look away. In essence we work hard to escape or battle the elements. Our neck and ears get red and once we notice this, our behavior and remarks get even worse. We speak faster or quieter, still avoiding eye contact while touching our neck or scratching our nose.

Handling the voice in our head gives us a different experience – one of useful focus. To handle the voice, shift from the fight or flight response to a productive one. Say to your self, “Here’s what I know.” From that starting point we generate open vs. closed thinking. This simple phrase focuses our brain to our personal experiences and knowledge related to the question.

So, even if you’re used to self-sabotage from letting your voice in your head close your mind while getting the better of you, repeat the simple phrase, “Here’s what I know” to trigger a new experience.

Secondly, pull out from the specific focus to a general one by stating a theme around your response.

Tying your words to a theme requires holding back for a moment to find it, then sharing it. It’s okay to take your time. We like it when people think before they speak. What comes next is usually worth waiting for. “It’s like my dad used to say,…” or “This is one of the biggest lessons I have learned” or “Like Stuart Smalley – we are strong enough, we are good enough and gosh darn it, people like us!”

Thirdly, answer the question. Maybe it’s a logical one for you. Or maybe you need to build a bridge to a related topic. Simply say aloud what you’ve already told yourself – “Here’s what I know…” and go where you can go.

Finally, circle back to the original remark (theme) and add something more to it. Suggest an action of your listener or a next step of you and them.

The key to responding to unexpected questions is opening your mind. That starts when you tell yourself, “Here’s what I know.” Once you have done so you can focus, you can get creative with an overall theme, you can respond with calm and specifics and you can circle back to your opening remarks.

We’re better than we give ourselves credit for. Speak well by saying what you know.

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On June 2nd, 2014, posted in: anxiety, communication skills, public speaking by