I was having lunch yesterday with some friends, when the subject turned to questions and answers. My friend had attended a conference panel, and complained that the panelists all failed to adequately answer her question.
(In defense of those panelists, the question was a difficult one without a clear right answer.)
I proceeded to answer the question, much to her satisfaction, and she asked me afterwards, “How do you give good answers to tough questions?”
1) Make sure you understand the question. When someone asks me a question, I listen carefully, both to the words, and to the unspoken assumptions. Two people might ask the exact same question in exactly the same words, but my answers to them would differ depending on tone, body language, and my history with that person.
2) Start your thinking broad, and narrow it down. As I listen to questions, my brain is constantly jumping ahead, thinking about the various possible paths the question (and my answer) might take. It’s a bit like watching a search box autocomplete, gradually narrowing down potential answers as I type. That way, rather than searching for a single right answer and not knowing where to start, I simply winnow my down to the truth.
3) Always directly answer the question, even if the answer is “I don’t know” or “I can’t tell you that.” I always give a direct response. Unless you’re really slick, it’s unlikely the questioner will forget what they actually asked, and your attempts at evasion will simply madden them and reduce their estimation of you.
4) Make your answer interactive. Just as I’m constantly making mental adjustments as I listen to the question, it’s wise to follow the same approach when answering. Give one part of your answer, and check for agreement. There’s no sense in erecting a massive rhetorical edifice if the listener disagrees with your basic assumptions.
5) Check afterwards to see if the questioner feels satisfied. You’re answering the question, so you don’t have to stop until you feel like it. Don’t let the desire to finish override the real goal, which is to convey understanding. If it takes a little more time, better a longer response than an unconvincing one.