10 Secrets to handling questions well

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6 June 2019
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

10 secrets to handling questions wellYou have done the research, prepared the slides and rehearsed your presentation. You are in control of everything. Well, almost everything. A question and answer session can be a daunting experience as you have no idea what people will ask, or if they will even ask anything. By following these ten simple steps, you can have the confidence to handle the situation with ease.

1. Say when you’ll take questions
Start by setting out your ground rules. Are you going to take questions throughout, or do you want your audience to hold questions until the end? If you make sure that your audience knows this right at the beginning, then they can be happier and less awkward about having to guess what you will accept, and you can have an easier time without being interrupted at an annoying moment.

However, sometimes you may not have a choice. If a senior manager or a customer interrupts you mid-flow – even if you asked for questions at the end – answer them there and then.

2. Listen carefully to the question
Make sure you listen and understand the question. If you did not hear it properly the first time, ask them to repeat it a little louder. If you’re not clear on what they mean, check first before answering. In this situation be careful not to embarrass them by positioning your request for clarity as you having not understood, rather than them having communicated in an incoherent or unclear way. It may often be a good idea to repeat the question, this lets the question asker correct you if you have misheard or misunderstood, and if you have quite a large audience, ensures that people in the back know what was asked. It is also a nice trick to give you an extra few seconds to think about your answer.

3. Answer the question that was asked
If you get a tough question, it can be very tempting to answer something similar that you wish they had asked instead. Even if you do not know the answer (more on that later), you must respond directly to what was asked. People are smart and will notice if you avoid the question.

4. Divide up multiple questions
Someone stands up to ask a question and starts with, “Ok, so my question is in three sections…” what do you do? Rather than get stuck answering each of their individual points, listen carefully to their questions and work out what the central theme of their question is, and answer that.

Using a phrase like “You’ve asked several things there, I’m going to start with your point about logistics,” lets you break the questions up into their own points and make it more manageable on yourself. This also makes it easier for your audience to keep track of your answers as well. If you have time, you can come back to their other questions later.

5. Stay calm and pause
Once you’ve listened to the question, you can take a couple of seconds to gather your thoughts before answering. You should take no more than five seconds (otherwise you start getting into awkward silence territory), but this is plenty of time to take a breath, stay calm and then start talking with confidence.

6. Keep it brief
You are answering questions, not giving a whole second presentation. Keep your answers focused and to the point. Avoid waffling on, especially if there are many more people waiting to ask their own question. You do not want to run out of time after having only answered the first question, when ten other people had their hands up too.

7. What if you don’t know the answer?
This is probably most people’s biggest fear about taking questions after a presentation – what if someone asks a question that you do not know an answer to? Well, you actually have a few different options.

You could simply say “I don’t know”. You may offer to look it up and get back to them, or simply admit you do not know and move on. There is no shame in not knowing everything, and you should absolutely never guess. You can only get away with this once though. Any more than that and you start to appear unprepared.

Your second choice is if you know somebody else in the room will have the information, then could you could invite them to answer the question. Or point the question asker in the direction of where they could find an answer – such as a particular report or website. Check with the person in advance though as they may feel uncomfortable being put on the spot.

And your third option is to try to answer but giving the very clear caveat that “I’m not 100% sure”. This is not the same as saying that you do not know, as it allows you to still give an answer, or perhaps just part of an answer, but it lets your audience know you do not have the same confidence in what you are saying as you had in the rest of your well-researched presentation. This is a great option if you’ve already said “I don’t know” and there’s no one else present who would have the knowledge on the topic.

8. Maintain eye contact
Give the person who asked the question your full attention while they are speaking and then for the first few seconds of your answer. This shows you are actively listening to what they are asking, and that your response is addressed to them specifically. As you are speaking, you can widen your focus and talk to the entire room, but when you have finished your answer you should go back to the person who asked it to check that they are satisfied with your response.

9. What if no one asks a question?
Avoid the temptation to arbitrarily fill the silence. Wait for a moment, some people are nervous about being the first to speak and will hold back or hesitate. Once you have given enough time to be sure no one wants to ask anything, you could ask yourself a question by saying something like, “A question I am often asked is…”.

10. Leave them with your key message
Hold your question and answer session before your closing remarks. After you have answered the final question, recap your key message and call to action. This lets you have the last word and leaves you in full control of the last thing your audience thinks about.

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