Dealing With Questions
Many otherwise extremely competent and confident presenters will tell you that they really dread the question and answer session of a presentation.
They seek ways to ‘avoid’ difficult questions. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Dealing with questions in a presentation is a skill which anyone can master.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that, as a general rule, if people ask you questions, even hostile ones, it’s not to trip you up but because they genuinely want the answer.
Staying in Control of the Questions
Most people dread the question session because they fear losing control.
A little thought and some early planning can avoid this risk. But you can also avoid it by remembering that any presentation is an information exchange. It is as much for you to hear what people want to know as for them to hear from you.
However, if your presentation starts to get diverted by an interesting question, try saying something like:
“I think we’re getting a bit off topic here. Let’s put that to one side and you and I can chat about it later. Come and find me at the end and we’ll exchange contact details.”
“I’d really like to get on with the presentation, otherwise I may not have time to finish, but let’s talk about this later.”
Setting out some Ground Rules
At the start of your presentation, you should make it clear whether and when you would prefer to deal with questions - as you go along or at the end of the presentation.
Some speakers prefer questions to be raised as they arise during the presentation. The advantage of this approach is that any misunderstandings can be dealt with immediately. However, there is also a danger that the question will disrupt or distract the speaker, or that questions are raised that would have been covered later in the presentation.
Top tip! Categorising Questions
If you like to deal with questions as they arise, but you are concerned about the pitfalls, there is an easy way to handle this. In your introduction, explain that there are three types of questions:
- The sort that seeks clarification of something that has just been said – you will answer those immediately;
- The sort that asks a related question about something that you plan to cover later – you will answer those later in the presentation; and
- The sort that is best dealt with offline because most of the audience probably won’t be interested, or it’s outside the topic of the presentation – you will make a note of the question and come back to the questioner afterwards.
When a Type 2 or 3 question is asked, you can then say something like:
“That’s a Type 2 question, so I’ll park that for now, and cover it later. If you don’t think I’ve covered it by the end, remind me, and I’ll go over it.”
Other speakers prefer to deal with questions at the end of the presentation.
If you prefer this approach, ensure that you set aside sufficient time for questions but also limit the amount of time available. The amount of time will depend on the type of presentation you are giving but usually 10 minutes of question time should be sufficient.
The big advantage of this approach is that if you talk too quickly, you will simply have a longer question session: a big incentive to talk slowly and carefully, and make sure that your audience understands everything as you go.
You should not close the presentation with the question and answer session.
When you have finished answering questions, make sure that you have the last word with a strong assertion of your main message(s).
In other words, you can thank the audience for their questions and then summarise once again the main point or points that your presentation was designed to communicate.
An Introduction to Question Sessions
The main rule of question sessions is to treat your audience with the respect you would like to have shown to you, and answer their questions directly and honestly.
If they have asked a question, it is because they want to know the answer.
It is very unlikely that anyone will ask a question solely to trip you up, although this does happen.
If a question is provocative, answer it directly. Never be rude to the questioner or show you are upset. Do not compromise yourself but maintain your point of view and never lose your temper.
This tactic can be difficult to maintain but the key is being assertive.
Visit our section on assertiveness to learn some more tips, start with: Assertiveness - An Introduction.
Listen carefully to the question and, if the audience is large, repeat it to ensure everyone in the audience has heard.
If you’re not sure you understood correctly, paraphrase it back to the questioner and check that you have it right. Answer briefly and to the point.
If you do not know the answer, then say so and offer to find out. Then ensure that you follow up. To be able to respond, you will need the questioner’s name and email address, so make sure that you speak to them before they or you leave.
“I don’t know” is a very acceptable answer to some difficult questions and it is much more acceptable than stumbling through an answer or making something up. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know” is even more acceptable.
Relax and do not feel as if you have to know everything. If you don’t know it is better to be honest than to try to pretend.
Trust takes a long time to build up, but it can be lost in moments, and audiences will almost always know when you are not being genuine.
An Alternative Tactic: Involving your Audience
If you are speaking to a well-informed audience, a professional group for example , and the question is a fairly general one to which you do not know the answer, consider asking the room if anyone else would like to respond. You may have the world expert on that subject sitting there who would be delighted to share their expertise with you all. If you have noticed someone in particular, you can even say:
“I noticed that Professor X is in the room, so I wonder if he would like to comment on that to save me displaying my ignorance”
“My colleague over there is more familiar with that area than I am so, while I don’t want to put him on the spot, maybe he would be prepared to shed some light on this?”
Most people will be fine with that approach, especially if they really do know more about it than you, and it will mean that the room gets a much better response. Yes, you’re the one standing at the front, but you don’t know everything.