We pose and answer questions every day. From a simple “how are you?” to the questions like “why are you a good fit for this job?” which could influence our future. These high pressure questions may come in job or promotion interviews, professional exams or pitching for business, funding or to promote a new initiative.
Communicating in these situations is challenging. My last blog touched on communicating who you are. This is especially relevant for job and promotion interviews focussed on you as a person. Even in situations where you might be trying to win business or put forward a business case, the people asking questions will still be interested in who you are. Do they trust you to do what it is you are proposing?
Understanding yourself and being able to communicate that is a big part of answering questions effectively. Here are some further tips on how to improve your question answering skills:
Listen to the Question
It may sound simple, but listening to the question properly is important:
- Don’t start answering the question before the person asking it has finished (I have seen this happen surprisingly often).
- Make sure you understand the question. If you are not sure what the questioner means, ask – they’d rather clarify than get a response which doesn’t answer the question.
- Think if you need to. This is a major difference between introverts and extroverts. Introverts tend to think before they speak, extroverts think as they speak. Interviewers should understand there are different styles, and as long as it’s not awkwardly long, a brief moment to gather your thoughts (if you need to) is fine.
Less Can Be More
Time tends to be limited in interview situations. I recommend answering the question as succinctly as possible. You need to make sure you have given enough information to answer the question, but don’t keep talking for the sake of it. If the person asking the question wants more, they will ask you to expand your answer or ask follow up questions.
There are many types of structure you can use to answer questions. Two examples I’ve seen used well are PREP (Point, Reason, Example, Point) and STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result):
PREP: What is your greatest strength?
STAR: Tell me about a time that you’ve led a team.
[NB: These examples are non-specific for illustration only – I encourage you to include details in your answers, such as time periods, measures of success, scale of projects].
I’m not suggesting you use these formats to answer every question. It would get rather repetitive and contrived. For questions that need more depth, these outlines may help you give a focussed, clear and memorable answer.
The structures above use examples and stories because storytelling is a major component of effective public speaking. Humans connect to stories. They elicit emotions and are memorable. For this reason, stories are also good for the speaker – it is easier to recall and relate something that has happened to you.
As I’ve mentioned in another article, I now write down significant achievements. Some of these act as my story bank to call on when answering questions. I review them when preparing for interviews.
Practice and Feedback
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you might have noticed that these are major themes I believe are essential to improve at any kind of speaking. You can practice answering questions in a general or specific way.
General – Get used to answering questions, any questions. Impromptu speaking is an important part of the public speaking groups I take part in. Participants answer questions without preparation for one to two minutes. You don’t know if or when you might be called upon to answer a question, so you have to be listening. Every time a question is asked, I think about how I might answer it, just in case I am called upon to do so. I learn from watching other people answering questions. Plus there are evaluations, helping meeting participants to understand what came across well and how to improve.
Specific – Practice answering questions related to the situation you are in, whether that’s a job or promotion interview, pitch for new business or proposing/defending a business case. Asking someone else to come up with questions that could be asked in these situations and practicing answers, getting feedback and refining your responses is invaluable preparation.
Any kind of situation where you have to answer questions thrown at you can be highly stressful. Remember:
- Even not knowing what questions you are going to be asked, you can prepare.
- Practicing answering questions to develop this skill.
- Focus on what you are being asked and how you can answer in the most appropriate way.