Handling the technical sniper

Picture this … your firm is bidding on a large municipal or industrial project; as part of the process, you’re meeting with ten people involved with the project to present and discuss your proposal. Or, maybe you’re in front of a  homeowners’ association. Tomorrow, it’s simply an individual homeowner. In any of these scenarios, you can run into the personality known as the “technical sniper”. Technical snipers lie in wait, looking for an opening to ask a technical question that only they know the answer to. This is their opportunity to elevate themselves and look knowledgable and brilliant in front of everyone else. You are their tool to accomplish this, and they can barely wait to demonstrate that they know something that you don’t.

I’ve seen a fair number of these types over the years and since they’re always lurking out there, the question is, “how do you handle?” Here are a couple of things that I’ve seen work well.

To begin with, nothing builds confidence more than simply knowing what you’re talking about. There is no substitute. Do your homework and know your material cold. Then, before your meeting, ask yourself, “what’s the most difficult question someone could ask?” Have an answer for it. Also, figure out what part of your presentation is the weakest and then go to work on that.

It is critical to hear the technical sniper out. More than anything, he wants to be heard and be credible in front of his peers or perhaps his boss. Give him that opportunity, at least for a short amount of time. Here’s what I saw work very well a couple of years ago at a Franklin Electric seminar: an attendee sat in the front row (nothing wrong with that in itself) and every 2 minutes had something to add or dispute in a loud, condescending voice. As a presenter, you want engagement, but this was ridiculous.

To handle, our Field Service Engineer who was doing the seminar said, “______, those are all great points. When we break for lunch, would you do me a favor and save me a seat at your table? That way, we can talk a lot more, but at the moment, I want to make sure we get to all the material we need to this morning.” The point was made in a friendly, positive manner, and no one looked as if he was trying to run away. This individual had been validated, and it completely changed his attitude. As a matter of fact, graciously allowing others to make a few valid points during your presentation can also make you look poised and confident.

Related to this, never play into the technical sniper’s hands by getting upset or flustered to one of his questions or comments. That’s probably exactly what he is looking to do. And, if you do get flustered, you won’t be able to answer the question in a coherent way.

Never be afraid to say, “That’s a good question, but I don’t know. Please give me the opportunity to find out for you.” I’ve been around too many people professionally who can’t bring themselves to do that. I once knew a sales engineer whose instinctive response to a hard question was to change the subject and talk louder and faster. He thought it worked, but no one in the audience ever did.

In summary, handling a technical sniper is more about how you handle the situation than any specific question itself. The irony is, down the road, other members of the audience probably will never remember what the actual question was. But, if you handle it well, they will remember how well you handled the situation, that a good discussion took place, and thanks to you, several good ideas came out of the meeting. All in all, a very good outcome.

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