Questions can be a huge source of concern for presenters.
What happens if you don't know the answer?
What about if you don't hear the question properly?
Or you get asked something uncomfortable?
That's a lot of questions about questions.
Don't have time to read this blog? You can listen to it here:
Delegates on our presentation skills training courses often tell us they worry about contact with the audience.
They fear questions from audience members will blow them off course and undo all their good presentation work.
Even an experienced presenter, who has given TED Talks, can dread the question-and-answer session.
So, how should presenters deal with questions?
To answer that, let's look at five awkward question types you could face when giving your next presentation and tips on how you can handle them.
Uncertainty makes people uneasy and nervous. We all have a fear of the unknown.
Questions are the great unknown in presentations - it's the bit we think we cannot control.
And not knowing what could be asked can make presenters more nervous and drain their confidence. Mouths go dry, legs become wobbly, palms get sweaty and stomachs feel knotted.
And this poses a threat to giving an effective presentation.
The vital thing to remember is most audience questions can be anticipated.
If your presentation includes any controversial parts, that is almost always going to trigger audience questions.
Any areas that are lighter on information – perhaps because of time constraints – could also provoke intrigue and a desire for more detail.
It is worth Googling your subject, and searching social media channels, to see what people are discussing. Also, check whether it is being covered in the news.
Additionally, consider any topical broader issues which could be raised by the audience. It is also worth thinking about questions that are less likely but that you would find particularly challenging to answer.
Once you have identified likely questions, you can prepare how to respond to them - it will improve your confidence.
This question anticipation work should be treated as seriously as preparing your presentation slides, visual aids, bullet points and the message you want to get across.
But what about the curveball questions?
Of course, no matter how much preparation you do, there is still a chance something unexpected will be asked - you can't predict every question.
If you face an unexpected question during a presentation, remain composed.
Buy yourself some thinking time.
A brief pause or a phrase like ‘that’s a good question’ – as long as you use it sparingly – can give you a moment to gather your thoughts, take a few deep breaths, and plan how to respond.
That pause can feel awkward and presenters should practice it before doing it for real.
But as well as giving you that thinking time, it creates the impression you are carefully considering your response.
It shows poise and suggests you remain in control.
Unless the question raises an issue you want to explore, briefly answer it and then bridge (more on this later) back to the subject and main points you want to focus on.
Questions where you don't know the answer
But what if you don't know the answer?
This is the situation that causes presenters the most anxiety.
Is it the moment you lose your credibility?
No. It is crucial to remember you can't be expected to know everything - you're human.
So, what should you do?
If you face a question you can’t answer, the best approach is to be honest and admit you don’t know.
It is far better than trying to bluff, wing a response or getting drawn into speculating on something you are unsure about.
Go on to tell them what you do know – by saying something like ‘what I can tell you is…’ – or promise to get back to them with the answer to their question.
You can also consider opening the question to your audience - "I don't know the answer, but there might be someone here who does."
Questions that feel hostile
It is important to remember that when giving a presentation or speech, most audiences are on your side. They want you to succeed. They want to learn and benefit from your expertise.
But there may be times when questions feel negative or hostile.
They may even appear to criticise you.
Don't take it personally. If you do, you'll lose your composure.
And when that happens, you risk losing the sympathy of your target audience, and people will forget the great presentation you gave before.
Body language and stage presence are also crucial. If you look away from the audience, give awkward facial expressions, start fiddling with your note cards, or check your presentation slides, people will think you feel uncomfortable with what has been asked.
They might even think you are rude - not a great look for someone hoping to give a killer presentation.
So, maintain eye contact with the person asking the question.
The other key is to avoid spending a lot of time on the answer. You don't want it to become the focus of the presentation. During our presentation skills training courses, we tell delegates to briefly answer the question and then retake control.
So, you could say something like, "That's an interesting point, and it is something I will look at, but the most important thing to focus on now is...". Or, "I think you raise a good point, and I'll discuss that with my team to get their ideas. But I think it is crucial we don't lose sight of...".
Your words will work best and sound more natural. But this gives you an idea of how you can briefly answer a difficult question.
Complicated or multi-part questions
Multi-part questions can present particular challenges.
They can be long, rambling and hard to follow. And pose a threat to your audience's attention.
The best starting point with these questions is to ensure you fully understand what has been asked.
Paraphrasing the question can create that clarity, and help the broader audience understand the question - you'll notice journalists sometimes do this when faced with a complicated or confusing answer.
It also gives you a few moments to gather your thoughts.
Then break the question down, focusing on the part you think is most important. And then move to the next part.
As you finish your response, check with your questioner that you have answered everything they asked - "does that answer your question", is an excellent way to wrap up your answer.
Not every presentation or speech is on a positive subject.
Sometimes you need to deliver bad news. Perhaps redundancies or a site closure.
The audience is likely to be upset. They may challenge what you have said.
And their questions could be fuelled by emotion.
In this situation, your audience needs to know you care. People need to feel they have a voice and that you understand their plight.
Compassion and empathy are vital. Show your human side and be authentic in your response.
Perhaps tell a story from when you were in a similar situation and how you handled it.
Once you've shown you care, move on to answering the detail of their question.
Another tip here is to avoid using cliché phrases like "I completely understand." That may sound thoughtful, but it is tired. And people will see through it unless you can show you have been in a similar situation.
Join our learning and development programme now and you can access our masterclasses, online training courses and dedicated resource hub. And 'Ask the expert' surgery sessions give you the opportunity to probe the expertise of our journalists, communication experts and leadership tutors to overcome problems and nurture skills. Click here to learn more
What else do you need to know about questions in presentations?
Rethink how you feel about questions
Questions present a challenge.
But instead of viewing them negatively, look at them as another way of making your presentation interactive.
Being asked questions is a good thing. It shows the audience is interested, engaged and genuinely excited about your subject.
It also shows they are curious to learn more and probe your knowledge further.
Media training techniques can help
Media training techniques which help spokespeople respond to tough questions in a media interview are also handy for presenters.
Bridging, for example, is a technique where the spokesperson briefly answers - or at least acknowledges a question - and then steers the conversation to safer ground.
The skills taught during our media training courses are just as transferable as the techniques taught in our presentation skills training courses.
Don't leave questions until the end
But one of the best tips for presenting we can give you about questions is not to leave them until the end.
Ending on a question-and-answer session seems like an unwritten public speaking rule. All the best presentations do it, don't they?
Well, we encourage our delegates to practice asking questions at regular intervals throughout the presentation.
The chances are that saying ‘any questions?’ as you finish may feel half-hearted. And could be met with an awkward silence.
Additionally, you are allowing the audience to decide how your presentation ends. And there is a good chance it will not be on the key points you want them to take away.
Do you want the audience's attention to focus on that bizarre or random question Colin from Accounts asked right at the end?
Asking for questions throughout the presentation allows you to create a much more memorable ending for your audience.
Top presentation tips for questions
- Anticipate questions as part of your presentation preparation
- Practice how you would answer them
- Remain composed if asked something challenging or unexpected
- Pause and take a few deeps breaths before you answer
- Repeat the question if you need a little more thinking time
- Maintain eye contact with the person asking the question, particularly if it is a difficult question
- Remember, it's ok to say "I don't know"
- Ask for questions throughout your presentation
- Reframe questions as an opportunity to reinforce your message and key points
Need more help with your presentation skills?
Giving effective presentations isn't easy.
The fear so many of us have about giving a presentation even has a name - glossophobia.
But we can help with every aspect of giving a good presentation.
We can help you create the right first impression, find the ideal presentation structure, improve your body language, eye contact and hand gestures, develop impactful presentation materials, make memorable messages and finish with a bang.
And we can put your question-and-answer skills to the test.
Speak to us about your presentation skills training needs. Or check our online presentation skills training course - Presentation and Personal Impact Skills - packed with videos from our expert tutors and all the tips and advice you need to deliver a good presentation.
Media First are leading media and communication skills training specialists with more than 35 years of experience.
We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications and leadership coaches, and media trainers.
Discover more about our presentation skills training.