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My role at my company is a project manager on a fairly large project. Every month, I am required to present the status of my project to executives within my company and the customer's company. Since being in the role, I have overcome my nervousness during these presentations (for the most part).

During the presentation, the stakeholders present will typically ask questions and sometimes these questions can put me on the defensive of having to explain why certain things may be running late or over budget. For the most part, I am usually prepared for these questions, but every once in awhile, there will be a question that completely catches me off guard. This is when my nervousness really shows. I become long winded, talk in circles, etc. This is due to me second guessing my answer or feeling the need to defend myself and the team when in reality, I should be able to simply point back at the customer and remind them of their commitments that they failed to meet.

I have tried searching for classes, videos, and reading material that can help with this issue, but it’s difficult, because I do not know what to search for exactly.

Here are my questions:

  • What would be the specific search term/phrase that you would use to search for solutions and/or learning material for this issue?
  • Can anyone provide some reference material on how to overcome this specific nervousness issue?
  • I think that I would be able to better overcome this issue if I was a better "bull**** artist"; can anyone provide some reference material on how to better "wing" these types of questions with confidence?

** Edit Nov-3 2021 **

Let me provide some clarification.

An example of a question that recently caught me off guard:

  • Earlier this year the customer requested multiple amendments to the statement of work which resulted the schedule being extended along with the need for additional funding.
  • 6 or so months after those initial requests, an additional amendment was needed due to a mix of customer requests and internal delays
  • At the next major status meeting, referencing the latest amendment, one of the stakeholders asked me, "Why does this keep happening? There was just a request for additional funding, not too long ago.."

I knew exactly what the answer was, but I felt that it was too obvious. This made me start to second guess myself to the point where I thought that maybe I had mixed up something. This made me flounder and start to over explain the details versus just stating the high level facts.

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    Are these things that you 'should' be able to answer off the cuff, but you can't? (e.g. do the senior stakeholders always expect a PM to have budget figures off the top of your head and sometimes you go blank) Or is it something that it's reasonable to look into after & come back to them with an answer? Oct 4, 2021 at 16:03
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    For example, at a previous status meeting, I was asked "Didnt we need XYZ not too long ago, why do we keep needing XYZ" This question threw me off b/c they were the ones who specifically asked for XYZ the past 3 times. I knew this answer, but I went blank on the related details and started doubting if I even knew the correct answer. When there is a question that I just dont know and requires me to look into my notes or something like that, I let the stakeholders know that I will get back to them.
    – Spectrem
    Oct 4, 2021 at 17:31
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    Look up Toastmasters locally. Attend. Reap the benefits.
    – Tiger Guy
    Oct 4, 2021 at 19:09
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    why is my question being downvoted? Its a valid question needing specific answers
    – Spectrem
    Oct 4, 2021 at 19:51
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    @BernhardBarker I can't say I agree that it should be closed. Navigating issues in meetings is a core workplace theme. The OP wants to understand how they can get better at that core aspect. Maybe we shouldn't all blurt out our favourite authors, but giving advice on the types of resources available to the OP could be very useful, and just as importantly, be useful to other users. Oct 5, 2021 at 5:44

5 Answers 5

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This is going to be a bit of a frame challenge.

The way to handle a situation where you don't know the answer is simply to be honest about it:

Sorry, I don't have a complete answer to that right now. I will get the information you're looking for to you by close of business tomorrow.

(obviously adjust "close of business tomorrow" as appropriate for when you can have an answer)

And then make sure you follow up and complete that action.

One other thing:

I should be able to simply point back at the customer and remind them of their commitments that they failed to meet.

Never, ever, EVER do this in front of the customer's senior management. This is a discussion for your senior management to have with their senior management, calling them out in a public meeting even if it's true can only possibly lead to bad things happening.

If it is really the case, ideally you will have talked to your senior management before the meeting to ensure you have a consistent position on the subject. If not, talk to them as soon as possible afterwards while you are preparing the answers you committed to provide.

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    Depending on your relationship with your customer, you should be able to hold them accountable in a professional manner. These meetings are reoccurring meetings to discuss the status of a project. You must be able to raise issues going through the management chain when issues are not resolved. This meeting is definitely the time and place to do so.
    – Spectrem
    Oct 4, 2021 at 19:25
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    @Spectrem With respect, that's what a frame challenge is. Oct 4, 2021 at 19:40
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    It's the only answer - you're looking for a way to come up with a non-bullshit answer in seconds. That's impossible. If you can, you weren't unprepared. If you were unprepared for the question - you can't. So don't. Either take a moment to think or do what this answer suggests. The resources you're looking for don't exist.
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 4, 2021 at 21:37
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    @Spectrem there's a reason this answer has so many votes. Being up front about not having the answer is the answer. Even if you can bullshit your way through the question on the spot, it will eventually come back to bite you
    – coagmano
    Oct 5, 2021 at 3:32
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    This answer assumes that the OP doesn't know what the answer is. I think this is incorrect. The OP looks to be mentally unprepared. Oct 5, 2021 at 4:16
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I disagree with the other answer. It doesn't look like your problem is you don't know the answer to the question, but you've not mentally prepared yourself to answer. In addition, I believe your problem is you're predisposed to get defensive.

The simple fact of the matter is if there is something you should know, you can't simply defer it to answer it later. It makes it look like you don't know what's going on.

I also dispute that being a bullshit artist means you are good and responding to unexpected questions. Responding to unexpected questions just makes you a good communicator and quick on your feet.

If you are asked in a meeting on why things are delayed, you should be prepared to answer both honestly and tactfully. You can start with facts, which parts of the project are running over, which parts are proving difficult to get right. Keep it quite high level. But be prepared to go into detail if they probe.

If there is a part of the project where you were blocked on the customer, it's fair enough to say it in a tactful manner. That's what these meetings can be about. You know that your employees don't always get things right. They know the same. It comes down to shouldering some blame as well, and making sure they don't lose face.

I think taking a public speaking course is the best course of action. It will give you tips on how to frame things in a positive light, and how to mentally stay ahead of the conversation.

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  • You can start with facts, which parts of the project are running over, which parts are proving difficult to get right. --> So are you advising to somehow tell that the customer is at fault? in abstract way? how?
    – chendu
    Oct 5, 2021 at 5:12
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    @chen Yes, if the customer is at fault for some of the delays, that needs to be communicated. It may be very unclear to the customer about how their action/inaction may have caused delayed. Oct 5, 2021 at 5:20
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    It doesn't need to be blaming the customer. If you can identify something that looks likely to be difficult to do (or very slow, or liable to go wrong) in a customer request, then you are identifying technical risk, and the earlier you can do that, the better. Then you can either plan to do something different, or plan to tackle that topic ahead of time, perhaps as a separate project, ideally out of the critical path. Oct 5, 2021 at 14:18
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    I see this answer being entirely complementary to Philip Kendall's answer. Better prep will leave fewer opportunities to get caught off guard. If you are caught off guard, take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, and address the question (as noted here). If you don't know the answer, or can't get yourself organized quickly enough to make sense, then Phillip's answer is 100% spot on. Instead of talking your self into a hole, defer the question, make a show of writing it down so they know you're not blowing it off, move on.
    – FreeMan
    Oct 5, 2021 at 15:59
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    I've upvoted both answers, because each is useful in a different context.
    – henning
    Oct 6, 2021 at 8:37
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Have a go-to plan

In high stress situations, we tend to freeze up. So it is extremely helpful to have a plan, a specific "go-to" set of actions that you take when this happens. If you use these consistently (you can even practice in front of a mirror) then they will be automatic at times of stress.

Your plan is going to be specific to your company, your client, your culture, and you as an individual. Here is example of my go-to plan when the client puts me on the spot.

  1. I furrow my eyebrows and use a tense mouth; this helps prevent a nervous smile or laughter, which can come across as dismissive. Hands clasped in front, almost as if begging--this is a disarming posture.

  2. Brief pause, then literally say the word "Hmm," which helps me remember to take a beat, and relaxes my muscles a little bit. This is also helpful on a teleconference because it fills the awkward silence while I think about what I'm going to say.

  3. I repeat the question and acknowledge their point, as if it is the most important thing in the world. "You're right, we needed XYZ not too long ago, and now we need it again. Is that your question?"

  4. If their question implies something negative, or there is some sort of elephant in the room, I like to confront it directly-- this tells them that their concerns are my concerns. "You're asking how many more times we're going to need XYZ." or "You're wondering if there's a more efficient way we could do this."

From this point, the response is going to depend on the question and the circumstances. If you have to say "I don't know," that's okay, but it's not a great way to start the answer, so I always precede it with one of these canned responses:

  • "Let me consult my team. I don't know."

  • "I want to make sure I get you the right answer, so let me take that one away."

  • "It's a reasonable question. I don't know."

  • "I hear you. I'd be concerned about that too. Let me get back to you."

  • "Yes, we're aware, and we are escalating internally. I will have an answer for you on ______."

Hope this helps.

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    I was about to write something similar. The idea is to give yourself time to compose yourself and fully understand the question. The part about "I don't know" being an acceptable answer is very important.
    – Celos
    Oct 6, 2021 at 6:59
  • I disagree that "I don't know" is a bad way to start a response to a question - rather, I think it's a bad way to end the response. Instead, I think you should follow it up with what you'll do to find the answer/when you'll find the answer: "I don't know, so let me find out and get back to you via email after this meeting."
    – V2Blast
    Oct 6, 2021 at 19:14
  • Having a pre-prepared set of phrases like this is very helpful to a reasonable fraction of people. It probably splits along the 'I don't know' division line (@V2Blast) for the ability to carry the impression of being in control. Adding the prequel lines sets context, while those having a 'presence' can add the lines as a postscript. We rarely appreciate the problems of others when we don't have them. Oct 7, 2021 at 14:56
  • I agree it could go before or afterward. As a go-to plan, however, I think it is better to form the habit of saying it second, as this prevents the worst case scenario: the knee-jerk "I don't know" followed by an awkward silence as you figure out what else to say. Hopefully we all agree that should be avoided at all costs.
    – John Wu
    Oct 7, 2021 at 15:15
  • I think everyone answering my question is providing sound advice, but I think this is exactly what I am looking for
    – Spectrem
    Nov 3, 2021 at 5:22
3

From some of your examples in your comments, it seems the questions mostly feel "unexpected" because the question contradicts something the person asking the question previously told you.

My technique in those sorts of situations is to acknowledge the miscommunication, but clearly leave open the possibility that the misunderstanding was on my end or that circumstances may have changed. For example:

My understanding was that XYZ was specifically requested. If that's not the case, we can leave it out, which will cut a week off the schedule but also mean we can't do ABC.

Another reason questions can be flustering is if the asker seems to just be trying to shift blame for an unmet dependency. In that case, just politely stand your ground, leaving open the possibility that the problem might be on your end.

We've gone as far as we can without XYZ dependency. As soon as we get that, it should be about a week of work. If there's something I'm unaware of that you need from us in order to provide XYZ, please let me know.

If it's flustering because you really did goof up, briefly acknowledge without making excuses, and provide a plan to correct it.

That one slipped through the cracks. Thanks for reminding me. I'm making a note to make sure it gets addressed when I get back to my office.

In general, just pause for 5 seconds or so while you think of a diplomatic answer, instead of just starting to talk. The silence feels a lot more awkward on your end than it actually is.

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Bring in backup

Have someone else in the meeting who can help answer questions. Bring subject matter experts who can talk about the occasional difficult questions

Don't answer immediately

Take time to think about the question, and if you cannot answer it right away, say you'll get back to the question after some time researching it.

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