Executive Presence for Senior Finance Executives: Five Formats to Handle Difficult Questions

Handling questions in meetings and conference calls can be a challenge. Not only do you need to think quickly, but you also are expected to deliver a concise and clear answer. Many senior executives, despite frequent calls, still struggle with this aspect of executive speaking. This article will focus on giving you five approaches in how to address questions in conference calls. Conference calls are especially challenging as the lack of visual cues makes it harder to read the intention of the other party. We will provide sample answers using each of the five formats.

Challenges with communicating via conference call

Often held at unsociable hours
No visual cues
More interference [bad lines,multi-tasking like checking emails]
Harder to follow what each party is saying unless set-up and cues are used
Conversations can side-track and run over-time
One party talks for too long and loses interest of other parties or the other party cannot follow their answer
It’s harder to address complex issues unless checking techniques are used
Two skills to master; Voice to project confidence, Structure for clarity.

Answering a question: The opening

Use a set up to prepare the content (movie trailer versus the movie)
Be precise
Take a stand ie two points or three points
Pause before you answer [rather than saying ‘well, errr’]
Use vocal energy [emphasis, volume changes] to project your credibility
The opening should be short and concise

Five Types of Answering formats

Use a variety of formats in any one conference call
If you are not sure how many points to include in your answer, aim low; start with one or two points. Then check with the questioner if they would like to explore the issue in other ways.

Format ONE: The set up

Signals to the questioner what’s coming next [like a TV announcement]
Respond to the question [eg “That’s a good question”; “The rule is quite new and it is also complicated”]
Pause
Then overview the points you will cover in your answer

Sample replies

The rule is quite new and it is also complicated. There are two main changes. Change one and change two. Let’s start with change one.
The new regulation covers three areas: A, B and C. I will cover each of these areas in more detail now.

Format TWO: Paraphrase the question

Restate the question to check your understanding
Interpret what you believe the questioner wants to know
Do the thinking for the questioner
Don’t answer the question until you have clarified
Gives you some thinking time
Leads to better quality answers

Sample replies

As I understand your question, what you would like to know is: what is the major impact of this new regulation?
As I hear your question, what you would like to know is whether the impact of the new regulation will affect our business units. Is that correct?
If I understand you correctly, you are interested in [topic one]. Could I just check whether you would like to know about X or Y first?

Format THREE: Scope is too broad

When the question is too broad, check.
Don’t guess. Ask to clarify.
Ask a checking question
Give options to the questioner
Don’t ask the question to do ‘more work’

Sample replies

That’s a good question. It’s very broad and complex. Could I ask which aspect you are interested in?
That’s a good question. It’s very broad and complex. Should I start with A or B?
Two issues come immediately to mind. Issue 1 and Issue 2. Where one would you like to explore first?
This is a little broad in nature. It would be helpful if we could be more specific. Should we start with X, Y or Z?
This question is a little bit broad, could you be more specific?

Format FOUR: Clarify the question

When you are uncertain which aspect the questioner is interested in
Complex topics that would take a long time to talk about
Giving yourself some thinking time
Enables more of a conversational style to emerge in the Q&A

Sample replies

I could answer this question in two ways. From perspective A, or perspective B. Which aspect would you like me to focus on first?
Good question. Are you most interested in A or B or C?

Format FIVE: Too much information? Slice the melon!

When you have a lot of content you could use in your answer [the large watermelon]
Slice your information into sections [slices of the melon]
Overview the content in bullet points first
Then check which area the questioner would like to address first
Then focus into and drill down in that area
After you have covered each area, check back to see how the questioner would like to proceed

Sample replies

This is a complicated area. The main challenges to consider are 1,2,3, and 4. Which issue would you like to start with?
This is a very complicated question. The regulations are new and involve a lot of details. We have investigated the implication with our auditors and have identified six areas that we should address. In brief they are 1,2,3,4,5 and 6. Which one is most important to you right now?
We have analyzed this problem over the past two months and four areas need to be considered. I would like to briefly overview each area and then perhaps you could tell me which one is most urgent for you right now. We could then drill down into that one first.

How does checking affect your credibility?

It enhances it! Precise communication is always appreciated
Mix up your language patterns so that you do not repeat the same phrases.

Samples:

Could I check my understanding?
That’s interesting, let me see if I understand your question.
Let me see if I got your point
Good question. The focus is a little bit broad. Where are you going with this? What would you like me to address first?
To answer that question in full, I could speak for 30 minutes. Could you help me understand where I should start?

Conclusion

While conference calls, meetings and aggressive questioners will always be a fact of life for many senior business executives, using these five formats will give you the confidence that you can better engage, interact and connect with even the most challenging of question.

“Warwick is passionate about helping executives, working in multinational companies based in Greater China, speak out with executive presence so they can think, speak and act like a leader. I help executives turn the complex into compellingly simple message that are understood, passed on and acted on.”

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