HOW TO DEAL WITH DIFFICULT QUESTIONS WHEN GIVING A SPEECH OR PRESENTATION
By ANTHONY GARVEY
You’ve worked hard preparing and delivering your presentation and judging by the warmth of the applause, it seems to have paid off.
You click on your final slide and smile. It simply says “Thank you for listening. Any questions”.
Several hands shoot up around the room and over the next few minutes your smile begins to fade as you are caught off guard by a series of tricky and complicated questions from the audience. Your failure to answer them convincingly leaves the listeners unimpressed and undoes much of the good work you had carefully built up during your speech.
How did it all suddenly go so wrong?
When preparing a speech or a presentation, many speakers fall into the trap of thinking their work is complete once they reach the ‘Questions & Answers’ slide. Having prepared the main body of their presentation so thoroughly they neglect to spend time thinking about what those listening to the speech might ask – from the most obvious to the most awkward questions.
One tip is to sit with a blank sheet of paper when you have finished drafting you speech and write down and answer some easy questions you think you may be asked. Then tackle some of the more difficult questions you can think of. Ask a trusted friend or spouse to listen to your speech and get them to ask you some other questions too. Importantly you should also ask them to give you feedback on your answers to their questions.
Anticipating in advance the mood of the audience is important. If you expect the atmosphere to be tense or confrontational then allocate more time to preparing the Q&A session. Questions following a presentation about the restructuring of a company, where jobs may be at stake, will require much more preparation than a speech announcing a new product line.
A good idea to start off a Q&A session is to get the person who introduced you to ask the first question, a pre-agreed question for which you are fully prepared. Another tip is to ask and answer the first question yourself. This allows you to set the agenda, get your key message across first and head off potentially tricky questions. For example: “I know many of you are worried about the impact this announcement will have on your jobs. I can reassure you that…”
Listen carefully during the Q&A session for the hidden agenda question which can often pop up. During a company merger for example, employees of the smaller company often worry that the culture of the new company will dominate. They may ask questions that seem on the surface to be trivial but there may be a much broader concern behind them. Don’t dismiss or brush off these questions. Listen carefully and you will be able to answer both their initial query and address the underlying problem.
From time to time we are all asked questions we don’t know the answer to or even worse, are asked questions we feel we ought to know the answer to, but don’t. It is best in these circumstances to be honest and open, rather than bluff or waffle.
Perhaps a suitable response might be: “I don’t have that information to hand right now, but if you leave your contact details with me, I will send it through to you later today.”
Although this may not shield you from a completely unforeseen landmine of a question, the act of preparing in itself will put you in the right frame of mind to come up with the best answer you can at the time.
Another tip when answering difficult questions is to pause for a few seconds to consider your reply before leaping straight into an answer. This may feel unnatural at first, but with practice it can give you the extra seconds you need to formulate a coherent reply.
When the Q&A session has finished ideally you should be the last person to leave the room, addressing any final concerns people may have on a one-to-one basis.
Finally joining a public speaking club such as Toastmasters can be a great way to practice presentation skills in a safe and encouraging environment.
In particular taking part in impromptu speaking session (often known as table topics) where a member is asked to speak for up to two minutes on a subject they have not previously seen is great preparation for answering difficult questions. Taking part in these activities allows speakers to develop their ability to organise their thoughts quickly, an essential weapon in a speaker’s armoury when mastering the Q&A session.
About the Author
Anthony Garvey is a member of Tralee Toastmasters Club in County Kerry in the Republic of Ireland. Anthony finished in second place in the UK and Ireland finals of the Humorous Speech competition held in Garryvoe, Cork in November 2012.
About Toastmasters International
Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organization’s membership exceeds 292,000 in more than 14,350 clubs in 122 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are over 250 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7000 members. To find your local club: www.toastmasters.org Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.