Handling questions as a presenter

Friday, March 14, 2014

In this, the third in my series of articles on Presentation Skills, I explore the area that is often the main source of nervousness, even panic in presenters, namely questions.

You can prepare every aspect of your presentation, but the one area you can’t control is the questions you may be asked. Here are 10 strategies for managing the questions component of your presentations.

1. Predict and prepare

As with every other aspect of your presentation, effective handling of questions starts with good preparation. By putting yourself in the audience’s chairs you can probably predict many likely questions. If you can predict them, then you can plan in advance how you will respond to them should they come up.
Ask yourself – what questions would I hate to be asked? This will shed a light on a subject or issue where you may not feel comfortable. How would you respond to them? By incorporating this strategy into your preparation you will feel more in control and more control means less nerves.

2. Have the right intention

If you are honest, have you ever gone into a presentation thinking ‘how can I get this over with a quickly as possible?’ or ‘I hope to God they don’t ask my any questions?’ With intentions like these (conscious or unconscious) you will speed through your delivery hardly pausing for breath, let alone a question.
When presenting, we have to realise that questions and audience engagement is part of the process. A presentation is always a means to an end, and that end, whether it is educating the audience or seeking buy-in to an idea, requires interaction and questions are the best way to achieve this. So set your intention positively and consciously. Ask yourself – how can I engage the audience, how can I stimulate discussion?

3. State how you want to deal with questions at the outset

Clarify for the audience how you are going to handle questions. Are you happy to take them as you go, or do you want the audience to hold them until the end? A number of variables will determine the best option; the context, the nature of the topic, your experience as a presenter. At a formal conference questions will usually be at the end of your segment. In a work or educational context taking questions as you go is the norm.

4. Get the basics right

For many people, raising their hand and ask a question requires a little courage, so it is nice to acknowledge their question, particularly the first question asked. Demonstrate that you are listening by holding eye contact with the person. Even though you might think some questions are off the point, or you already covered the topic, treat each person with respectRepeat or paraphrase the question, especially the longer ones, it demonstrates that you are listening and gives you time to think of the best response.
You also build rapport with the audience when you bridge to the next question. For example, by saying ‘does that answer your question’ or does that make sense?’ Once they respond positively, you then have permission to proceed.

5. The Chris Tarrant option! – Ask the Audience

If there are experts in the audience, or the question asked seeks an opinion, you can deflect the question. For example, if I was asked the question ‘how do you deal with disruptive people?’ I could respond by asking ‘has anyone here had experience of dealing with that situation, what did you do?’ This approach can stimulate a discussion and I may never have to answer the question directly. This strategy can only be used sparingly, you can’t deflect every question!

6. Empathise with the Dissenter

From time to time you may encounter someone who disagrees with something you are presenting. In classic conflict management mode, acknowledge this person’ point of view, empathise with their position, but own your opinion. You want to retain ownership of your presentation throughout; you don’t want to have it hi-jacked by an audience member on a soap box. If necessary, take the issue off line. You don’t want the rest of the audience to feel uncomfortable, so treat the dissenter with respect (even though sometimes that can be hard.)

7. Defend the idea, not yourself

Occasionally, an audience member will have their own agenda and will try to discredit you and your presentation. In these extreme cases they may make snide comments or try to knock your confidence. Retaining your self control is key. As in any conflict situation avoid getting personal. Don’t defend yourself; focus on defending the content of your presentation. By ignoring the personal jibes you earn the sympathy of the rest of your audience. Never get into a discussion about your qualifications or experience, then you are trying to justify your position and you will lose rapport with the group.

8. Disarm hecklers by raising the ‘hot’ issue yourself

If you know that it is highly likely some of attendees will raise contentious issues or have arguments they want to express, deal with them upfront. Remove their ammunition by raising the issue yourself. With this approach you are dealing with the issue in an open and objective way. You are also showing respect for the dissenters by acknowledging their position. But above all you are retaining control of your presentation.

9. Have a plan when you don’t know the answer

No one knows everything, so very occasionally you may get a question you cannot answer. Rather than saying ‘I don’t know…..’ say ‘I’m not 100% sure…..’ The latter presupposes some knowledge and you probably have some knowledge to share. Most of the time people want an accurate answer to their question, rather than an immediate answer. It is absolutely acceptable to say you will find out and get back to them. In this instance, note the question, either on a flipchart or be seen to write it into your notebook. This gives the audience member more certainty that you will actually revert to them.

10. Never end on a question

Have a plan for concluding your presentation; don’t let it peter out by desperately seeking additional questions, or by answering what might have been a weak question to start with. Summarise your main points, share a relevant quote, or outline the next steps. And it is always nice to conclude by thanking the audience.

Many presenters fear being asked difficult questions, or facing a row of angry people with conflicting agendas. This rarely happens. In the vast majority of situations, the audience wants to hear you and learn from you. So whilst some of the above strategies address ways to manage dissenters, from my experience you will rarely need to apply them.
In part four of this series I will take you through some techniques you can use to stimulate questions from the audience to foster engagement and buy-in, the days of asking ‘any questions’ and being met by stony silence will be over.

James Sweetman is a Business and Personal Coach, specialising in assisting individuals and firms to be more effective at what they do. He works both on a one-2-one basis with individual clients as well as delivering tailored training workshops on a range of topics including confidence-building and presentation skills. For more information visit his website.