You can prepare every aspect of your presentation, but the one area you can’t control is the questions you might be asked. Handling questions as a presenter is a source of the nervousness, even panic for some presenters. Whether your presentation is in-person or online, impactful presentations are engaging and well-structured. Being engaging means interaction with the audience and that brings us into the territory of questions.
As with every other aspect of your presentation, handling questions starts with good preparation. Contemplating what questions you would hate to be asked, will shed a light on areas where you may not feel comfortable. By putting yourself in the audience’s shoes, you can predict many likely questions. If you can predict them, you can pre-plan how you would respond to them.
Have you ever gone into a presentation thinking ‘how can I get this over with a quickly as possible?’ or ‘I hope they don’t ask me any questions?’ With intentions like these, you will speed through your delivery hardly pausing for breath, let alone a question.
A presentation is a means to an end, and that end, whether it’s educating the audience or seeking buy-in to an idea, requires interaction and that means questions. So set your intention positively and consciously. Ask yourself – how can I engage the audience, how can I stimulate discussion?
Clarify for the audience how you are going to handle questions. Will you take them as you go, or wait until the end? A number of factors will determine the best approach; the platform, the context, the nature of the topic, your experience as a presenter. With in-person presentations, you can see the audience’s body language and notice a confused facial expression. When delivering online, check-in with the audience more frequently, inviting them to share a comment or pose a question.
For many people, asking a question requires courage, so it’s nice to acknowledge their effort. Demonstrate that you are listening by holding eye contact with them. Online, this is achieved by purposefully looking at your camera. Repeat or paraphrase the question, especially the longer ones, this demonstrates that you are listening and helps to clarify your thoughts before responding.
If there are experts in the audience, or the question asked seeks an opinion, you can deflect the question. This approach can stimulate a discussion and you may never have to answer the question directly. This strategy can only be used sparingly and only when the question is an opinion as opposed to fact based.
Occasionally you may encounter someone who disagrees with you. In classic conflict management mode, acknowledge their point of view, empathise with their position, but own your opinion. If necessary, take the issue offline as you don’t want the audience to feel uncomfortable.
If it’s likely that someone will raise a contentious issue or have arguments they want to express, deal with them upfront. Remove their ammunition by raising the topic yourself. You are retaining control and dealing with the issue in an open and objective way. You are also showing respect for the audience by acknowledging their position.
There’s the possibility that you may get a question you cannot answer. If the question is genuine, the person is seeking an accurate answer, rather than an immediate answer. It’s absolutely acceptable to say you will find out and revert to them. If possible be seen to note the question, as this gives them more certainty that you will get back to them.
Seek interaction during your presentation, especially when delivering online. Don’t leave it to a final PowerPoint slide containing a question mark. Rather than saying ‘any questions’ expand it into ‘I’d welcome any questions or comments you may have.’ This is more engaging and it demonstrates confidence. When possible after an opportunity for questions, conclude your presentation on your terms with a quick summary, a relevant quote or a recap on the next steps.
In my experience as a presentation skills trainer and coach, most people see preparation as pulling slides together, overlooking clarity of outcome and how they plan to engage with the audience. Many presenters fear being asked difficult questions or having to deal with angry audience members with conflicting agendas. This rarely happens. In the vast majority of presentations, the audience wants to hear you and learn from you.
I hope you enjoyed this post on Handling Questions as a Presenter. For more content in this area make sure you read my post titled ‘8 tips for great online presentations’. If you like to listen to podcasts then why not check out this episode of my podcast where I talk in more detail about giving an online presentation.
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