What a Game Show Can Teach Us About Answering Questions

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I have had a lot of exposure to questions and answers, writing exams for professionals and university students. I’ve applied for grants and evaluated grant proposals. I’ve applied for awards and evaluated award proposals. I’ve been a subject matter expert and interviewed subject matter experts. I also routinely answer questions as a speaker and when designing and delivering lectures.

A high school teacher taught me three rules about answering questions that I’ve stuck to for the last forty-plus years: “be clear, concise, and specific”. I also learned that in most of the situations above I needed to add a fourth rule, “be thorough”. Clearly, a simple question such as “On what day of the week will May 1, 2016 fall?” can be answered with “Sunday”, and that meets all the rules I’ve laid out.

Some questions are more complex, and so are the answers. Some people even work to make their replies to questions sound like answers when they are not. I have heard lawyers and politicians do this repeatedly, and I have heard of people teaching folks how to make a non-answer sound like an answer. Speakers and trainers want to answer directly, of course.

I discovered a way to ensure that I answer questions directly and completely. The method is simple: if someone hears just the answer, they should be able to figure out what the question was. I named this idea after the answer-and-question TV program Jeopardy!. For those not familiar with the program, the host reads answers in various categories for which the contestants provide corresponding questions. For a made-up example, in the category of “Cyber security,” the answer might be “A method of obscuring confidential information” and the contestant would be expected to act the question, “What is encryption?’ So the answer has to have a clear question.

provide a focused answer that is clear, concise, specific, and thoroughNow, the answers and questions in Jeopardy! need to be concise for a half-hour television program. Questions an audience asks a speaker or learners ask a facilitator are often more complex, and the corresponding answers require more depth. The speaker or presenter needs to provide a focused answer that is clear, concise, specific, and thorough. The tendencies are to: 1) answer briefly or somewhat superficially (possible to limit the length of the answer so more questions could be fielded) or 2) to expand on the answer far beyond the questioner’s need. While the latter is sometimes justified as a way to cover more material, it can obfuscate the answer, if one isn’t careful. I admit, I sometimes do this. I’ve learned over the years to summarize a lengthy answer when I’ve elaborated enough that listeners might get confused.

Here, are my five tips for answering questions:

  • Be clear. Don’t use excessive jargon or ramble
  • Be concise. Even if it is necessary to elaborate on parts of the answer, don’t or overwhelm the questioner with nice-to-know instead of need-to-know
  • Be specific. Precision is often important. When I teach courses, I don’t hesitate to look up details on the web when I can’t recall or don’t know them
  • Be thorough. If you have to explain a concept in order for the listener to understand your answer, do so. In a speaking or teaching situation, I especially want the questioner to be completely satisfied with the answer
  • Make sure the answer directly addresses the question. A listener who missed the question should be able to figure out the question from the answer

I’ve used these rules to great success. I hope they help you to be a more effective presenter.

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  • answer: John McDermott

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