Presentation Skills: Handling Tricky Questions
Taking questions from your audience should enhance rather than destroy your expertise in the subject of your presentation.
The first thing to do is to decide whether you want to take questions in front of your audience or individually afterwards. In tricky situations, or where you are not sure about your subject, choose to take them in private.
If you do take public questions, follow these 2 rules:
1. ask if the audience heard the question. Even if they did, repeat it. This clarifies your understanding and gives you precious time to think.
2. if you don't know the answer, don't pretend you do. Either promise to find out and get back to the questioner (and others) or ask if anyone else in the audience has experience in the matter and can add something.
Handling Tricky Questions: Difficult Types of Question
Questions from the floor may or may not enhance your presentation depending on the subject and your audience. If you do decide to take questions, you may need to field 4 different question types. These are set to trap you:
1. The test question to find out how much you know.
"What evidence do you have for making these claims?"
2. The show-off question in which the questioner wants to show how clever they are.
3. The defensive question which may reveal that someone feels under threat, eg "How do you know this'll work?" (= I'm scared if it does)
4. The concealed objection, which is a way of challenging you, eg "Why is the price so high?"
Handling Tricky Questions: Thinking on Your Feet
There are seven ways to answer difficult questions from an audience:
• answer the question simply and assertively
• admit you don't know, make a note of who asked and the gist of the question and promise to find out. At the next possible opportunity, get the answer and get right back to the questioner.
• defer your answer to a private session (eg over coffee)
• refer to a colleague who knows the answer
• throw the question back onto the questioner
• throw the question over to someone else in the audience who you think could help
• open the question to general discussion.
Aim to be honest. Answer as best you can. Admit when you don't know and get back as soon as you can.
Handling Tricky Questions: What's Your Backup Response?
Since you can't predict all the things that can happen in your presentation, it is wise to have a backup response even if it is just to get you out of trouble.
The story is told of a salesman who was in a departmental store demonstrating unbreakable plastic combs. He had gathered a large audience around him and was putting the comb through all sorts of tortures and stress. One or two of the audience were sceptical about their unbreakability and challenged him to prove it. So the salesman bent the comb completely in half. To his and the audience's surprise, the comb snapped in half with a loud crack.
Without missing a beat, the salesman bravely held up both halves of the "unbreakable" comb for everyone to see and said, "And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what an unbreakable comb looks like on the inside."