Article: Difficult questions

Speakers can often dread the Q and A part of a presentation, thinking ‘what if I can’t answer, what if I fail, what if I lose face?’

Think instead of the Q and A as the most spontaneous part of your talk, sparking fresh and lively debate and giving the audience the chance to join in.

Remember that most people are nice. They’re there because they’ve chosen to come to hear you, they want and need to hear what you have to say, and they’re interested in your message.

But occasionally, you may have to deliver an unwelcome message to a difficult audience, and deal with some challenging questions.

Here’s how

There are only three reasons why people ask questions:

They’re interested and want more information
They want to join in, support you, and show what they know
They want to challenge and test you

Be prepared: Instead if thinking ‘please don’t let them ask me about that’, think up the six worst questions you can imagine them asking, and prepare clear, confident, factual answers.

Take charge: Set your questions policy at the start – tell them if you’ll take questions throughout, at the end of each section or at the end of your presentation.

Listen: Give each questioner your full attention and repeat the question to the whole audience if they couldn’t hear.

Think: It’s OK to pause for thought for a moment before you reply; it adds a note of gravitas. They’ll wait.

Reply: Give the answer to the entire audience too, because if you start having a private conversation, so will they.

Correct: If their question contains an error or an attempt to make you look bad, politely correct the error first. ‘In fact …’

Positive language: ‘Bloggs Widgets has a great record for protecting the environment’ rather than ‘Bloggs Widgets does not pollute the environment’ strikes a positive note, and avoids connecting ‘Bloggs’, ‘environment’ and ‘pollute’ in the audience’s minds.

If you don’t know the answer

Say so: ‘Interesting question! I haven’t encountered that before – I’ll find out and let you know’. And make sure you do, because that’s useful extra information for you, too.

Share: There may be someone in the room who does know. Invite them to contribute – you don’t have to be the font of all knowledge, and being seen as a networker who’s prepared to share the limelight can be great for your image.

Dealing with difficult people

The heckler: Tries to use aggression to intimidate you.

Aggression often comes from fear. It may be they haven’t understood or have the wrong impression, and giving a clear, calm explanation may defuse the situation.

If not, stop. There’s no point getting into an argument or a shouting match, as you’ll lose.

Ask the rest of the audience if they’d like you to continue – the majority will be on your side, and may well deal with the heckler themselves.

Being seen to get upset or angry will harm your reputation. If it continues and you’re a guest speaker, it’s best to leave the stage and let the organisers deal with it. They may be able to have them removed, which will be a relief to the rest of the audience.

Hecklers can feel frightening and intimidating, and you don’t have to subject yourself to threatening behaviour.

The saboteur: Tries to use negativity  to make you look bad.

Know your stuff. Prepare to counter each attempt to undermine you with positive, accurate and courteous fact.

The hijacker: Tries to take over and steer the message in their own direction.

Some questions are not really questions. They’re designed to show off, or to pursue a personal agenda.

Remember people are usually there because they’re attracted by the subject. They’re unlikely to want to waste their own time indulging one egotist, so thank the speaker for the contribution, remind the audience of the objectives and steer the conversation straight back to the point. The majority will be with you.

If a few really do want to discuss this side issue, you could offer them a focussed discussion over coffee.

The exception is when there’s an elephant in the room … one enormous issue is taking up everyone’s thoughts, and it’s getting in the way of the aim of the presentation. While you may be required to deliver the original brief, you could offer them a ten-minute block where the issue will be aired first, on condition that you return to the objectives for the rest of your allotted time.

Whatever happens: keep calm. Control your breathing, listen without interrupting, and speak more slowly than you may want to. Keep a neutral expression, body language and tone of voice, and use professional language throughout. You’ll look, feel and sound better, and leave with your image intact.

Q and A is a great chance to shine – enjoy speaking well in public.

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