You want to know WHAT?! The right (and wrong) way of dealing with questions

I’d like you to remember this – when someone asks a question during your presentation (even a really tough one), it’s a GOOD thing. It means they’re interested. You may be wondering why I’d like you to remember something that seems fairly obvious. Well, it’s because I’ve seen too many examples of otherwise good presenters seemingly being annoyed (and even aggressive) when asked a question. Nothing puts people off more quickly than having their well thought out question answered with a terse “As I said earlier I’ll be taking questions at the end”. Hopefully you would never do that (although I’ve seen many who have), but nevertheless we’re going to take a quick look at some top tips for answering questions in a professional way that adds to your presentation, and doesn’t detract from it.

Always look, and be, engaged

Let’s face it, the questions you receive may not always be concise. Sometimes people ramble on for what seems like weeks, before finally getting to some sort of vague question. Do not under any circumstances roll your eyes whilst this is happening, or look at your watch, or reply with “I’m sorry I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about” (even if you haven’t!). These may seem like extreme and unlikely examples, but it’s surprising what your subconscious can do without you realising. Your job as a presenter is to always look, and indeed be, engaged, and help the person that is asking the question to look good. Think about it, have you ever been that person? The one who thought you had a good question to ask and then found yourself rambling on. We’ve all done it, and it feels awful. Think of how you’d feel toward the presenter though, if he or she were patiently waiting for you to finish, to then smile, thank you for your question, and then do their best to paraphrase your question, checking with you that they had it right. In one interaction they’ve saved you from looking stupid, and due to some good listening skills, actually managed to decipher the true question you were asking (then giving you the credit for it!). You’d probably like them a lot for that, and seen as we’ve all done it, everyone else in the room would appreciate it too.

If you don’t understand the question, take responsibility.

What if, in the above example, you genuinely haven’t got the foggiest what the person is asking? In that situation, you should first and foremost take responsibility for not understanding (remember, make them look and feel good) and then ask them to restate the question. For example, I might say “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I’ve grasped exactly what you mean, could you please restate the question?”. In effect, you’ve taken the hit by being the person that hasn’t understood, rather than making it clear that not even Einstein would’ve understood it, and then by asking them to restate the question you’ve given them a lovely opportunity to have a second crack at being nice and succinct. Everyone’s a winner.

Always respect the question

Even if you’ve heard it a hundred times before, for the person who asked the question, it is important. It doesn’t matter how mundane, stupid, or irrelevant a question seems to be. For the person who asked it it’s important, so always give it (and them) the respect it deserves.

Take care with the multi-part question

People can often ask more than one question (particularly if it’s part of a ramble!). Don’t try and remember them all and answer them one by one. The chances are you’ll fluff it. When faced with a multi-parter, pick just one of the questions, answer it fully, and then say “you had another question?” The beauty of this approach is that by the time you’ve answered the first question, the person who posed it has generally forgotten their other questions themselves, and are normally quite satisfied with your response.

Be clear and succinct

This is not the time to completely re-hash your whole presentation. Be clear and succinct, and remember your answer should always re-enforce your key message.

And finally, don’t BS!

You are not a politician, and even if you are there is nothing worse than trying to spin an answer. Yes, you may be very clever, but all you’ve done is alienated your audience. Be honest and direct. Even if people don’t agree with you, they’ll respect you for being straight with them. Who do you think they’ll be more influenced by, the person who they didn’t entirely agree with but was honest, passionate and likeable, or the smart arse who had all the clever answers but never actually answered a single question??

So, answering questions well is clearly not an easy skill. However, if you practise and receive questions positively, you will be well on your way to setting yourself well apart from the average presenter. After all, who wants to be average right?

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