Many people who are comfortable giving a presentation for which they’ve prepared feel anxious when it comes to taking questions afterwards.
Delivering a prepared presentation is different from answering questions ‘off the cuff’.
However, if you are giving a speech, particularly one in business, then the ability to answer questions – effectively and confidently – is a skill that you’ll need.
Here are a few tips to help you develop the skills you’ll need:
1. Pause before you reply
Answering questions is a form of impromptu speaking. However, impromptu speaking doesn’t necessarily mean instant speaking. In fact, it’s better to begin with a pause even if you have an answer on the tip of your tongue. A pause and a thoughtful look add to your authority and credibility. A blurted or rapidly spoken answer detracts from them.
Pausing gives you the opportunity to take a deep breath. The quickest and easiest way to deal with your nerves is a deep breath. And it doesn’t have to be obvious that you’re controlling your nerves. Remember, you’re pausing to consider your reply, as a thoughtful professional does!
Pausing gives you an opportunity to think about your answer’s structure. If it’s a statistic, it will be appropriate to put some flesh on the bones of that statistic. Why this number is important, how it relates to the question, or what the statistic means if there’s a risk of misinterpretation.
2. Understand the question
Make sure you understand the question. Listen carefully and even ask the questioner to repeat or clarify it. You can paraphrase it to make sure you’ve understood it.
Most questions will be requests for information you didn’t give in your presentation or requests for clarification, especially about costs, deadline and responsibility. If you can’t answer because you don’t have the specific information to hand you can say, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
3. Dealing with tricky questions
Questions can be tricky for a number of reasons. You might have an audience member who is upset and therefore hostile; or with a genuine concern or complaint. If it takes the form of a statement, you’re free to say, “Thanks for that contribution” and ask for questions from elsewhere in the audience.
If someone asks a multiple question, you can choose which part or parts to address. You can then say that if there’s time you’ll come back to the other questions. If you don’t want to answer one of them you are then in control of whether there’s time at the end.
4. Stay in control
What is paramount is that you stay in control of the situation. As a professional you must maintain a certain amount of authority. That doesn’t mean dictatorial authority but the proper authority of a person who is in control of a meeting or a portion of a meeting. If you lose that, your message is lost.
Don’t react emotionally to an emotionally charged question. It doesn’t help the situation if the presenter becomes emotional in the face of a hostile or difficult question Losing your cool not only reduces (or kills) your authority but it can impede your ability to think clearly when it comes to answering further questions.
You can slightly rephrase the question to the form you’re more comfortable answering. “The REAL question here is…”
To be on the safe side, you can ask for written questions. You can have a small form or even index cards on seats and have a colleague collect and categorize them for you during the presentation. Thus, you can answer a question on a category without directly confronting a hostilely-worded question. “Do you really think we can integrate the two systems by your target date with no further staff or budget?” You can rephrase as “We have a question on the target date with reference to resources…” Of course, if you are integrating systems this is a question you should anticipate if your budget for staffing and training are tight.
5. Questions you can’t answer
If it’s a question you can’t answer, consider why you can’t answer it. Is it outside your field? You might not have covered it in your talk, in which case you can say that it’s outside the scope of this talk or outside your expertise.
However, the question can still be legitimate, since the questioner may want to know how your issue relates to him. It is acceptable to say “I’ll get back to you on that.”
In your own specialist area you can give an estimate but acknowledge it as such.
Remember, if you say “I’ll get back to you on that”, do so.
Never make something up. That’s a hostage to fortune which will not pay off.
6. Prepare a structure
Any skill, including confidently answering questions, needs to be practiced to be mastered. And you can train yourself to handle questions gracefully. Developing a set of ‘answer structures’ can really help. For example:
- PREP: Point, Reason, Example Point.
- Timeline: The situation in the past, what we do now, where we go from here.
- Problem-Solution: Here’s what went wrong, here’s what we did about it.
- Pros & Cons: Which one outweighs the other?
- Procedure: Describe the stages of a process.
You’ll see that some of these structures overlap (for instance, Problem/Solution can be given in terms of a timeline). But they won’t all fit all questions, so while you’re pausing and looking thoughtful before answering a question, one of the things to be thinking about is which structure fits the question just asked.
Practice with a colleague or friend, or at a Toastmasters club. By practicing in a low-risk situation, where there are no consequences for a bad answer, you can prepare yourself to speak more smoothly when the stakes are high.
Practicing in this way helps you to avoid the pitfall of retrospective regret “I should have said X”. Thinking of a better reply afterwards is a common problem, but one that you can lessen by practising the drill of structuring answers to questions.
What are the frequently asked questions (FAQs) in your industry? What are the FAQs of your particular job? What are the FAQs for whatever you’re working on right now? And yes, keep a running tally. This is not a quick fix. This is a tip sheet for being prepared over time.
Empathise with your audience, especially if you’re delivering the kind of presentation which is likely to elicit hostile questions (e.g., delivering bad news). Put yourself on the other end of your message and think how you’d respond and what questions you’d want answered.
Sometimes, the question will be letting off steam. (“Do you actually enjoy cutting staff/announcing cuts?”) But a question might contain a genuine concern. For example, if you’re asking staff or colleagues effectively to do more with less. “How do you expect us to implement this new system without additional staff?” is a legitimate question from an overworked team. This is one to anticipate by empathizing with your audience beforehand.
By following the eight tips above you can develop the skills to handle even the most tricky questions with confidence, ease and, perhaps, a dash of panache!
About the author
Paul Carroll is a member of Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations.
Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 345,000 in more than 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club: www.toastmasters.org Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.