For many people, this is one of the things they dread most about giving a presentation: how to handle difficult questions. Here are a few tips to help.
Before your presentation:
- Anticipate likely questions
As part of your planning, think about the questions that are likely to come up. If you were in your audience, what questions might you have? In particular, the most important questions to anticipate are the ones that you hope nobody asks you – so that you can think about a good response while you are in a calm state, rather than having to think on the spot about your answer during the presentation.
- Prepare your answers
Having anticipated the likely questions (and you can probably predict most of the questions), think about how you will answer them. For certain questions, you might like to use ‘STAR’ answers. STAR is an acronym that will give you the structure to illustrate your answer, as follows:
Situation: the context in which you have experienced this situation
Task: why the question can be a challenge in this context
Action: how you/others have dealt with this challenge
Result: good results as examples to follow, and bad results as examples to avoid
- Cluster question types in ‘categories’
If you have anticipated questions and prepared good answers, you can then cluster questions into catetories and allocate an appropriate prepared answer for that type of question.
During the presentation:
Having prepared for questions, you can then manage the Q & A session based on your prepared answers. But, what if you can’t answer a question?
The key thing is not to bluff your way through. Most people know when you are doing this and it comes over really badly. Better to go for the honest option: say you don’t know, offer to find out and get back to them.
Alternatively, if you think you should be expected to know this answer (but don’t!) open the question out to the wider audience by asking if anyone else has experience of this question and what they would suggest as the answer.
Another key point on questions is that you need to decide beforehand if you want to take questions as you go through or receive them at the end of your presentation – and then let the audience know early on what you want them to do. Both can work equally well, depending on your presentation and your personal preference, and you can then manage expectations.
Finally, bear in mind that when you ask for questions, there may be silence. This may be because there are no questions, or people are thinking about what they will ask, or simply don’t want to ask the first question. In this case, you can get the ball rolling while people are thinking by asking the first question yourself. Simply say, “One question I am often asked is…” then give the answer to your first question. You will often find other people follow this first question with other questions.
The important thing is not to put pressure on yourself that you must be able to answer everything. If you have anticipated, prepared your answers and know your subject, you will be able to handle most questions. And if there are some you can’t answer, remember the wise words of Confucius “He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions”.
Caroline Hopkins is a presentations coach who offers 1-to-1 coaching and training workshops in the North West of England. Her clients include many brilliant presenters who were once nervous and rambling – until they learnt that effective pitching, like driving lessons, is a skill you learn so you can get somewhere. For further tips and ideas go to www.lovepresenting.com