Six tips for handling questions in a presentation

How do you feel about answering challenging questions? The matter of how to handle a Q & A session is a worry for many presenters and speakers.

Being put on the spot is certainly a concern for many of the people I work with. They fear being caught unawares by a question, and embarrassing themselves or their company as they stumble towards a response.

Underlying this is the fear of losing control. You’ve delivered a great presentation, but suddenly you face a random interrogation – perhaps by people looking to find flaws in your argument.

Here are some strategies for taking the uncertainty and discomfort out of the Q and A:

  1. Spend as much or more time preparing for the Q and A as you do preparing the presentation or speech. Too many people polish their presentation and then try to ‘wing’ their way through questions.
  2. Think of questions as springboards, rather than challenges. Each question gives you the opportunity to launch a succinct message supporting some aspect of your presentation.
  3. Each of your answers should be a version of one of your main message points. So invest time in messaging. If you had to summarize your presentation in a slide of four or five bullet points, what would they be? Convert those points into short, conversational sentences.
  4. Anticipate the easy questions. Anticipate first the questions that will seek clarification. They will probably be framed around six key words:
    Who: who will be affected? Who will be in charge? Who will benefit?
    What: what will it mean to staff/clients/suppliers? What are the benefits?What’s the downside?
    When: when will it start? When will we see the consequences?
    Where: where will this take place? Where will this initiative take us?
    Why: why are we doing this? Why don’t we maintain the status quo? Why should we invest time and effort in this initiative?
    How: how will we measure success? How will you help people adversely affected by changes? How will we benefit?
  5. Anticipate the challenging questions. You almost certainly already know where you are vulnerable. Write down the toughest questions you can think of, from an outsider’s perspective rather than from your insider’s point of view. Decide how to respond.
  6. Listen really carefully to each question in the Q and A – but instead of hearing a challenging word, listen for a word or phrase that gets you to one of your key messages. Get comfortable responding to the question you choose to hear, rather than feeling compelled to respond to the negative element of the question. This is called ‘bridging’.

If you apply these six points you will approach Q and A sessions in a more confident way. You will have short, compelling key messages ready to deliver, depending on the opportunity you hear in the question.

One last point. Think carefully about the time in your presentation or speech when you want to take questions. I advise against letting the Q and A end the presentation. You don’t want your carefully-developed message to be sidetracked and possibly sabotaged by a negative question or comment, just as time runs out.

I suggest you develop your presentation to a conclusion, then take questions for a limited time, and leave yourself with time at the end for a recap of your message. 

This way, you end up with the last word.