Presentation Skills: How to answer those killer questions

Questions can be a major source of anxiety for many presenters.

In our presentation skills courses we are often asked 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, our delegates often ask 3 questions:

1. ‘How do I respond confidently to a question I simply don’t know the answer to?’

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

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

Our first task is to re-frame the way we think about being asked questions. For many people that presents a significant challenge.

It is often perceived as the moment of truth

We’ve spent hours crafting our presentation to ensure its content rich and helpful. We know our content well and have practiced exhaustively.

We’ve left nothing to chance; so what’s the problem?

It’s as simple as it is frightening. We convince ourselves that our entire reputation depends on how we answer questions.

Unfortunately, there can be a touch of truth behind that limiting belief. That’s why it’s the cause of so much anxiety amongst presenters.

There’s plenty you can do to answer those challenging questions with confidence and credibility. Before we explore them, try to avoid this mistake.

Don’t answer a question saying:

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

Quite often, it’s not a good question? If it’s not a good question the response sounds glib. If it is a good question, does that mean the others aren’t?

How you would feel if you asked the next question and the presenter didn’t acknowledge it as a ‘really good question’.

Just answer the question.

The scary six

Our job as presenters extends beyond crafting a content rich, compelling presentation. We also have to deliver it in a way that is congruent with our message. We have to anticipate difficult questions too.

Surround yourself with a small group of people you trust and respect. Share your presentation with them giving each person a specific role.

Roles

Devil’s advocate

Ask them to be contentious, oppose your view and challenge the strength of your presentation.

The sniper

Their role is to criticise you and to create an atmosphere of hostility and distrust.

The energy thief

Get them to look for a negative aspect of everything you say.

The know all

Encourage them to actively demonstrate that they know more than you on the topic.

The honest

Let them tell you in the most respectful way that they don’t agree with you.

The wanderer

They demonstrate that they haven’t listened to a word you said.

It’s not an excercise for the faint hearted because it takes courage.

It is, however an investment worth making.

Once the scary six have taken you and your presentation apart, take another look at your presentation.

As painful and as strange as it may sound, remember it’s not real and it won’t happen. You, however, will be prepared for anything.

What exactly should you do with those awkward questions?

Killer question 1 — You don’t know the answer

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 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 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.

Acknowledge the person who asked the question with eye contact. After that, bring the rest of the room into your response with eye contact too. Once you’ve moved forward and made eye contact, confidently say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know’.

You have a few choices at this point. You can:

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?”

Share a thought

You may not have the answer but you may have a view. Share a thought or perspective on the question if you have one.

‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know. 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?’

Ask for a moment

If you need a little time to think about the question, ask for it.

‘I need a few moments to think about that.’

This also take a little courage but remember, you don’t need to rush in to giving an answer.

Give yourself a little time to think. Your audience will respect you for it.

Postpone the answer

It may well be that you know the answer but under pressure the answer has slipped your mind. This is another opportunity to be honest.

Given the importance of the question, I’d like to give you the most complete answer I can. I will need to get back to you in…’

Killer question 2 — You don’t understand the question

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

“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

That is often the reason why we don’t understand the question. 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…’

If you still don’t understand the question, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and ask them to clarify what they mean. Explain politely that you are still not clear you understand the question.

Killer question 3 — It’s a hostile question

Most audiences are on your side. They are friendly, open and are keen to learn from you. That said, every now and then you may get what we call hostile questions.

They feel hostile because of the emotional charge. The questioner may wave their pen at you challenging or criticizing your perspective.

If this happens, 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 questioner.

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

Keep calm

Avoid matching your tone of voice to theirs. Stay calm, professional and polite. Remember that your audience will align with whoever is more courteous and respectful.

Very occasionaly it appears as though the questioner is looking for more of an argument rather than an answer. This is rare but if it happens, 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 simple but powerful technique you can use to respectfully 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. When there is such a high emotional charge in a question it’s often fueled by passion and a need to be heard.

The questioner 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. Tell them 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.

Try to understand the motivation behind the question and tone. Share what you are picking up from them: “It sounds like your main concern is with the process. Is that correct?” This will encourage them to focus on the point they are trying to make. It will also give you a little time to consider a response.

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

Remember

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 the question 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 politely and move on

If you need help:

– Book yourself onto a powerful public speaking course.

– Invest in some really good one to one public speaking coaching.

– Get yourself some excellent presentation training

If this article has inspired you to learn more you may want to take a look at our presentation training and public speaking coaching pages. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.

Image courtesy of: iStock.com

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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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