This is the most important career skill to master in 2019

Chances are, no matter what your job title is, in the coming year you’ll have a series of conversations that are important for your career. Whether you’re being interviewed for a new position, discussing a promotion, or pitching an important project, high-stakes discussions await you in the months to come.

To ace these exchanges, you must master one crucial skill: the ability to handle Q&A, the impromptu questions and answers that are at the heart of every interview. Studies show that those who think on their feet and respond without hesitation come across as leaders who project a certain charisma. In fact, the same research indicates that this quickness of mind is rated as being even more important as a barometer of your mental smarts than IQ is.

Here are the four fundamentals that will help you answer any question with grace.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

To begin, prepare for these impromptu exchanges. While we think of answering questions as a totally spontaneous act, you can and must get ready for these conversations. Sure, you can’t anticipate ALL the questions you might be asked, but you can take a stab at preparing a list of questions and answers. This holds for job interviews, performance reviews, client meetings, and presentations that have a Q&A component.

I have coached everyone from individuals who were applying to med and law schools, to executives going for their next big job. In each case, we spent hours writing down questions, preparing answers, and role playing Q&A. The result has been a series of success stories. Candidates got what they wanted: law school, medical school, acceptance into grad school, or a CEO position.

So if you’re heading for a job interview this year–or any other critical conversation–begin by prepping.

Don’t rush to answer

Next, take your time answering. You’ll come across as more confident if you do. Listen to the entire question. If you rush to formulate your answer while the speaker is still talking, you may ignore part of what they’re saying. The result: You’ll answer the question you think they’ve asked, instead of answering the actual question.

Rushing can also cause you to interrupt the speaker—who may be contemplating the second part of her question. That will make you seem rude and panicky.

You’ll present yourself as a confident, thoughtful leader if you wait for the full question to be asked and then pause to reflect on your answer. Even if you have the answer in your mind, that pause will suggest that you are taking the question seriously and judging that it deserves a thoughtful answer.

But just because you are pausing doesn’t mean you have to fill in the silence with words like, “That’s a good question.” You’re not there to evaluate questions, you’re there to answer them. (And, hey, what about the other questions: Are they bad questions in comparison?)

Structure your response

Third, carefully structure your response. If you want to sound smart and quick on your feet, organize your answer and include the following components.

  • Begin with a segue from the question. For example, you might open with “That’s something I think a lot about,” or “Yes, I’d be glad to tell you about my qualifications for the job.”
  • Then state your point. Every answer should have a one-sentence message that’s presented clearly and with conviction. For example you might say, “I believe I have the credentials to be successful in this role.”
  • Give two to four proof points. These reasons support your message.
  • End with a call to action. This might be telling the interviewer you are excited about the opportunity being discussed and look forward to hearing from them. You also might ask what the next steps are. When preparing your answers in advance, use this structure so you will come across as clear and confident.

Ask questions

Finally, take a proactive approach and ask questions. For example, in a job interview, ask your future employer about the position or the culture of the company. These questions will show you’re engaged and have been an active listener. There are tons of great questions to ask. Giving the other person a chance to share her experience and expectations conveys your emotional intelligence–and keenness for the position.

Asking questions also puts you in a leadership role–rather than a supplicant’s role. Probing shows that you feel confident in front of more senior folks, and that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. This suggests that you want to make sure this is the right job, promotion, or project for you.

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