Presentation Skills: How to answer those killer questions

In our presentation skills training and public speaking workshops at Mindful Presenter one of the most common requests we receive is to help people to answer questions more professionally.

It’s a much bigger issue than many people think.

When we probe a little deeper to understand the issue with questions our delegates often ask 3 questions:

1. ‘How do I respond confidently to a question I simply don’t know the answer to without losing face?’

2. ‘What if I don’t understand the question?

3. ‘How do I deal with hostile questions?’

At Mindful Presenter we believe that the very first thing that most of us need to do is to re-frame the way we think about being asked questions during or after a presentation. For a great number of people that presents a significant challenge.

It is often perceived as the moment of truth.

We’ve spent hours, days or even weeks crafting our presentation to ensure its content rich, memorable and, most importantly, helpful. We know our content inside and out, we’ve practiced the way we deliver it vocally and even mastered every physical gesture that will ensure our success.

We’ve left nothing to chance and even anticipated all of the questions we may be asked.

So what’s the problem?

It’s as simple as it is frightening; we have convinced ourselves that our entire reputation and success depends on exactly how we answer those difficult questions.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of truth behind that limiting belief which is why it’s the cause of so much anxiety amongst presenters. The good news is that there is plenty that you can do to help yourself and your audience.

Before we take a close look at what will help you to answer those challenging questions with confidence, comfort and credibility, let’s take a look at the biggest piece of bad advice on the internet.

“That is a really good question and I am glad you asked it.”

Please don’t make that huge mistake that so many professional coaches encourage you to make. Think about it.

How often have you heard a presenter say that when you knew it was a dumb question?

Imagine how you would feel if you asked the next question and the presenter didn’t acknowledge it as a ‘really good question’. It just doesn’t work.

So what exactly should you do with those awkward questions?

‘How do I respond confidently to a question I simply don’t know the answer to without losing face?’

There is a really good reason why the old saying ‘honesty is the best policy’ has stood the test of time, because it’s true. The moment you try to bluff your way through a question you really don’t know the answer to you lose your credibility.

Try this instead.

Step into the question, in other words take a step forward towards your audience. If you are seated then lean forward into the table or desk.

Have you noticed how common it is for most people to be on the ‘back foot’ when they don’t know the answer to a question?

Your challenge is to be on the front foot and to step into or lean into the question. As you do so make a point of acknowledging the person who asked the question with eye contact but then bring the rest of the room into your response with eye contact as you confidently say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know’.

Ask the audience

“I don’t know the answer to that but I wonder whether anyone else in the audience does.”

“Can anyone help answer that question?”

A thought

One of my personal favourites when answering a question I don’t have the answer to is to at least offer a thought or perspective if I have one. That’s not always possible of course but if you do here is a possibility:

‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know, but in the meantime I have a thought on the issue. Please keep in mind that it’s not the answer to your question as I’ve already stated I don’t know the answer, but here is a thought.

What’s your view on that?’

‘What if I don’t understand the question?

I’ve long held the belief that most people don’t really listen. I believe that we do something else — we wait to speak.

That is often the reason why we don’t understand the question, so the solution is relatively simple. We need to really listen. That means:

  • Listen — to the entire question
  • Breathe — don’t leap straight into a response
  • Check — ‘Let me just check that I understand you correctly, you are asking me if…’

‘To make sure that I’ve understood you correctly are you asking…’

‘How do I deal with hostile questions?’

Most audiences are on your side; they are friendly, open, want you to do well and are keen to learn from you. That said, every now and then you may get what we call a ‘sniper’ in the room. In the movies they are normally on the roof with a rifle but in the audience they sit at the back of the room desperately waiting for the Q&A.

You know they are a sniper because of their emotional charge as they wave their pen at you challenging, contradicting, or criticizing your perspective.

When confronted by the ‘sniper’ your job is to remain calm, depersonalize the attack and avoid being over defensive; easier said than done I know.

Your first priority is to diffuse the emotional charge and to take care of the rest of the audience whilst respecting the ‘sniper’.

Treat them the same as any other member of the audience and answer their question as honestly and as professionally as you can.

If your attempts at doing are repeatedly rejected and it appears as though the questioner is looking for more of an argument rather than an answer then you owe it to the rest of your audience to close it down.

You do have some options:

  • You can acknowledge their concern and suggest that the two of you meet separately after the presentation to discuss the matter in greater detail.
  • If the questioner persists you can calmly assert:

‘I’m afraid I need to move on now …’

It’s possible that you may need to repeat this two or three times.

  • A wonderfully simple but powerful technique you can use to respectfully quieten the ‘sniper’ and to regain control of your presentation is to:

Listen -That means listening very closely and carefully to the perspective of the questioner.

Agree — You have listened closely enough to find something you can sincerely agree with. That does not mean you agree with a point they make even if you don’t. It means you listen intently for something that does make sense to you that you can agree with. In my experience, when there is such a high emotional charge in a question it’s normally fuelled by passion and a need to be heard.

The sniper isn’t a bad person. They are simply someone who feels very strongly about what you are saying and may not share your perspective. Once you have listened closely enough to find something you can genuinely agree with, no matter how small, there is only one thing left to do.

Pause — You acknowledge that you agree with that element of their argument, that you understand their perspective or that the specific point they just made makes sense to you. Then you pause and you stay silent.

It’s more than a pause of course as you are signalling to the questioner that you have nothing else to say on the matter.

You don’t say a word and watch what happens next.

One of the many key distinctions between a Mindful Presenter and a mediocre presenter is the ability to handle challenging questions professionally and effectively.

That distinction is achieved through the conscious focus and effort to:

Listen very carefully to the question

Lose the ‘headstuff’; in other words not making it all about you

Pause and breathe

Repeat it if necessary and appropriate

Understand the motivation behind the question

Respect the questioner and the audience

Anticipate difficult questions whilst crafting the presentation

Stay calm, focused and on message

Close the questions down and move on

If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and presentation coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.




Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.

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Maurice DeCastro

Maurice DeCastro

Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.

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