Handling Questions

Why Are There Questions?

Audiences ask questions primarily to get additional information. But, they also ask them to get attention, to make their own points or just to hear themselves talk, among other reasons. No matter, you have to be ready to respond and to make sure they are well taken care of.

A Presenter’s Best Friend

If questions aren’t handled properly, they can spell an unfortunate end to what might have been an exceptional presentation. The key to being successful with questions is to be ready for them. Be prepared. It works every time!

The opportunity with questions is that they help you reinforce key points, build rapport with your audience and get a sense as to whether there are still any underlying concerns. They can help to advance closure to your presentation and set up an opportunity for an additional summary of your key points after all the questions have been taken care of.

The key to making questions work to your advantage is to fully anticipate them, look  forward to getting them and prepare properly for them. You must know your material really well and prepare in such a way that you have prepared answers ready for the most controversial questions. It’s really important that you take the time to identify audience concerns and make sure you have answers at your fingertips.

Picture of man asking questions of a colleague.Work with a colleague to plan your answers beforehand.

As with your presentation, the best way to prepare for a rough session is to identify the questions beforehand and then practice with colleagues. It’s even better to have others come up with tough questions to challenge you – the tougher, the better, so that you’ve been well–tested before the actual presentation event.

Be Cordial

One of the most important tasks of any presentation is to make the audience feel comfortable with the answers to their questions. This is a great opportunity to get the audience to support you and to show their support both through their questions and the fact that you answered their questions to their satisfaction.

At the same time, you want to make them feel good about having asked the question and check back with them to ensure they’re satisfied with the answer. Questioners are not necessarily your adversary and, in many cases, are just seeking clarification or in some cases, are making a point in your favour. It’s a good idea to respond with introductory phrases such as: “I’m glad you asked . . .”; “That’s a good question . . .”; or, “Many people are concerned about that . . .”

Never show impatience, even if the question was covered within your presentation and it’s obvious they weren’t listening. Just use it as an opportunity to reinforce a previously made point.

Listening is Key

Actively listen to questions. It’s important to be totally “present” for your audience’s questions. It shows respect that will pay back in spades.

In a large room or one with lots of people, where the question will not obviously be heard by all, make sure you repeat it. Ask the questioner to clarify anything you don’t understand so that you can answer it fully. If the question has some inflammatory words in it or words that could be changed to clarify the meaning, make the changes and then ask the questioner if it summarizes his or her question appropriately. Restating a question also gives you additional time to think of an answer.

Take Your Time

Don’t rush through an answer, only to wish you’d thought out your answer a bit better. Take your time to do it right the first time. You’re not in a race. Sometimes we rush into an answer without thinking it out properly and then end up talking around the real answer. This reinforces the fact that you want to think about the possible questions beforehand and then formulate your answers long before your presentation. It prepares you that much more and you come across as extremely knowledgeable. But be careful your answer doesn’t appear rehearsed. There’s nothing worse than a politician who doesn’t answer the question but prepares something to deliver by rote that sounds like it.

The KISS principle applies to your answers. Make them simple and to the point. Don’t get off the topic or “digress.” You can find yourself offering new information that can get the audience off topic with a new line of questioning that is difficult to steer back to the topic at hand.

If you don’t know, say so. While we don’t like to admit we don’t know, it shows character. Simply tell them you don’t know, but will get back to them with an answer by such and such a date. The alternative is to bluff an answer and get caught doing it. There’s not much worse than that. There goes your credibility!

Don’t be afraid to toss a question back at the audience. If you know the answer lies out there, ask if anyone knows or would care to answer. This increases your rapport with the audience and may make one or several of them look good. They will be willing to repay the favour.

Eye Contact

It’s important when answering a question, to maintain eye contact with the questioner at the beginning of your answer. You want to establish the fact that you are truly interested in their concern and that it’s important. As you move further into your answer, feel free to shift focus to other members of the audience, but at the end of your answer, make sure you return your gaze to the questioner and make sure that person is happy with the answer.

Your treatment of each individual question and answer will reflect on your presentation as a whole, so it’s important to ensure that each member of the audience is satisfied with the information you’ve provided throughout.

Phrases for Question Period

There are a number of phrases that you can keep in the back of your mind that can come in handy during a question period.

• Keep in mind that the audience is always right. Rather than “You missed my point,” try something like “Perhaps I wasn’t being very clear . . .” and restate your answer succinctly.

• “Let me clarify that.” (Instead of, “You don’t understand.”)

• “I’m glad you asked that question.”

• “Bear with me one more second.”

• “The answer is just not black or white. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated that that.”

• “Did that answer your question?”

• “Your point is well taken.”

• “Thank you” – always a great phrase!

And if you disagree with a position a questioner is taking, don’t take sides. Rather, suggest an alternative stance. Rather than saying “No, that won’t work,” try “Well, this is my approach . . .” The objective is not to create enemies. You may need them for the final decision or may be working with them again at a later date. How you treat them during the presentation is critically important.

Scheduling Questions

Most of the time, you have the decision as to whether you want to take questions during your presentation or at the end. Sometimes, it’s a matter of what you feel comfortable with, or the structure of your presentation. You may not want to interrupt the logic flow with questions. On the other hand, you may want to make sure each point you make is accepted at each step along the way.

The type of audience can also influence your decision. In a room full of busy executives, you may simply be interrupted with questions about cost. In fact, based upon your answer to that question, your presentation might end right there. The environment you’re presenting in can also have an impact. If you’re using slides and the room is quite dark, questions will be discouraged.

Whatever the case, make sure your audience knows beforehand what the rules are regarding questions; when you would like them and if there’s any protocol, like going to a microphone or waiting to be recognized, in more formal situations.

Questions During the Presentation

Fielding questions during the presentation works really well for smaller groups. It builds rapport and support along the way. However, it can also disrupt the flow of the argument you’re making, or you get questions on things you are going to cover later in your talk.

Questions After the Presentation

Leaving questions till the end is almost mandatory if you have a large audience. One major drawback is that if you are tight for time, the question period could be cut short, and you may leave some audience members dissatisfied, as a result. And whatever happens regarding the allotted time for questions, make sure you have a few minutes at the end to restate your conclusion. Remember, you want to end on a positive note and to make sure you have left your audience with your solution – because that’s what this exercise is all about!

Rehearsing Q & As

Question and Answer sessions at the end of a presentation can be the most important parts of the presentation. In some situations, more time can be spent on questions and answers than on the presentation itself. A single wrong answer to a well-placed question can put all the work you’ve done in jeopardy. So it makes sense that if you’re going to rehearse your presentation, you should also rehearse questions and answers.

The best way to identify what the questions are going to be asked is to have a peer who knows the subject of your presentation play Devil’s Advocate and ask you questions designed to test your knowledge or confidence. You need to anticipate objections. This is a good place to look back at your list of concerns that your audience might have. Also review the perspectives of the different members in the audience. If you don’t have a chance to address all the individual concerns within your presentation, you can bet one will surface in the question and answer period and you have to be ready for it.

Your Answer

Here’s a simple way to organize your answers:

a) Restate the question

b) State your position

c) Support your position

d) Summarize your response

e) Ensure that the questioner is satisfied

You’ll learn many more tips for making your presentation more powerful and effective in “Presentations That Work,” one of MRCC most popular video-assisted workshops. For more information, click on http://www.mrcomm.com/comm.htm#present.