curveball questions

Curveball questions: How children help us develop our skills

by Elizabeth Toohig
in Blog
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How children help us answer curveball questions

What seemingly-innocent yet challenging questions have you been asked by a child? How did you answer? What made it a challenge?

From the mouth of a child…

I recall a time as a head teacher that I faced just such a situation.  One November morning, 180 children aged between five and seven and 20 staff gathered in the school hall for morning assembly. With Christmas approaching, we were planning to donate a gift to each child in our chosen school in Uganda. At the end of my talk, a little boy called Tom raised his hand and asked, “Why doesn’t Father Christmas deliver presents to children in Uganda?”

Suddenly, all the eyes of the staff were on me. How was I going to answer that whilst keeping the magic of Christmas alive? Tom was not trying to catch me out or deliberately ask a question that was hard for me to answer. From a child’s simplified vision of the world it made complete sense. Fortunately, I was able to draw on the lateral thinking skills that I had developed over years of facing such questions from children in my class.

Importance of curveball questions

Of course, today it is not just children who can pose what is often referred to as ‘curveball’ questions. Employers often ask them at interview to test a candidate’s ability to respond to the out-of-the-ordinary under pressure. I have seen more than one presenter thrown by a challenging question posed by a member of the audience at the end of a presentation, or during a panel discussion. The speaker’s ability to handle such questions can impact their credibility and standing in the eyes of the audience. Often, the question and answer session is at the end of the presentation, which allows the speaker very little time to re-establish their credibility.

TREAT™ process

The five step TREAT™ process is the perfect tool for answering these questions. After listening to the question – and don’t be afraid to ask for it to be repeated – take a moment to pause and consider the following.

ThoughtThought  – your first thought is your best thought

Your mind will suggest an idea to you. It may appear bizarre and you might not know why you are thinking it. The important thing is to have an idea. Once you have an idea, you can build on it.

reasonReason – why are you suggesting this response?

You need to share your reasoning. It gives you a chance to frame the perspective you are taking and to put parameters on the question. Explaining your ‘why’ will help in providing logical back-up to your position.

engagementEngagement – a total sensory experience

Including different sensory descriptions will engage your listeners. Descriptions that include the sense of smell are great for triggering memories. Including emotional language will speak to the hearts of your listeners.

anchorAnchor – give an example

Providing a tangible example is the easiest way to illustrate your thinking. The more personal you can make it the more plausible it will be. It is much easier to talk about personal experiences, and you can make these as engaging as possible to help the audience visualise what happened.

take-awayTake away – finish with a message or challenge

Finishing your response with a clear final statement can act as a summary. When this is phrased as a message about learning or posed as a challenging statement, it is more likely to stay in the minds of your listeners. To finish with real panache, end with a short rhythmical phrase that has a visual dimension.

Next time a child asks you a question that you are not expecting, try using the TREAT process. Remember that they are helping you to develop your ability to answer curveball questions!

All the practice I had in answering curveball questions at school helped me to win Toastmasters International impromptu speaking national finals. I only had the time it took for me to walk up on stage to prepare a response that would entertain a conference full of eager delegates! Click here to view the two minute clip of my winning response.


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