Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The unexpected question: How speakers should prepare

The unexpected question--the one that comes out of left field and floors the speaker--doesn't just happen to you.

In "You are Making Your Biscuits Wrong," the New York Times notes that even Oprah got caught during a live appearance for the launch of her film Beloved, based on the Toni Morrison novel. Oprah's character is seen briefly making biscuits. At one screening, an eyewitness reported:
When the film ended...Winfrey took to the front of the theater to take questions about race, gender, oppression and literature. It did not work out that way..“The first audience member to speak said something like: ‘Oprah, y’all made your biscuits wrong. Don’t you remember how we make our biscuits round here?’ I believe the biscuit-making scene lasted about 20 seconds, but the roar of the crowd suggested the speaker wasn’t alone in her outrage.”
How can you prepare for the unexpected? Here's what I tell my trainees:
  • Acknowledge and accept the surprise. "No one's ever asked that question before" is a fine way to share your surprise, and start a conversation. It also signals the truth: That you're not ready to answer. You'll boost your credibility if you do this rather than start to make something up. After all, "I don't know" is one of the strongest speaker statements.
  • Take the time to anticipate three types of questions: The ones you want, the ones you expect and the ones you fear. Most of us understand we should prep for the queries we fear, and do so. But in my experience, speakers tend to forget to figure out their answers for the questions they want, those nice, easy questions that give you the chance to show what you know or talk about your program. And who wants to come up speechless when someone has said, "Tell us more about your wonderful program"? In this case, the biscuit question might have easily fallen into the "questions you expect" category, since it's a common activity and one the audience could relate to from experience.
  • Have some back-pocket phrases to buy a little time.  When you don't know what to say, stall for time to think while continuing the conversation. Ask a question of the questioner, or launch into an explanation with a few more words than you might normally use until the answer comes to you.
What's a question that caught you by surprise? Share in the comments.

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