25August 2023

Public Speaking Tips for Answering Questions

Ending a presentation with the words, ‘Any questions?’ is often a moment of dread for many speakers.
They think it means they are about to lose control and have to react to a raft of awkward, judgemental or critical questions.  Up to that point they were in control of the narrative and now they feel they are being put on the defensive.

First of all, if you are ending your presentation with:
‘Any questions?’
it suggests that you do not have a very good ending or significantly powerful message to your presentation because surely you would want the last formal words resonating in the audience’s heads to be that significant message.

Therefore if you do intend or need to run a question and answer session towards the end of your presentation, make it clear that these questions are a structured part of your presentation: not an ‘add on’  and you will finish or sum up your key points at the end of the section set aside for questions.
That way you will always have the last word and that last word will be the key message you want to convey.

Secondly, if you do run a question and answer session, rather than viewing it as the moment when you lose control, view it as an opportunity to further drive home your key messages. 
The audience will be virtually asking you to repeat yourself!
Unless you are a politician or the CEO of a pharmaceutical company most of the questions you receive are not likely to be malicious or leading questions.  If you suspect there are likely to be some difficult questions or areas where you feel vulnerable, then it is worth planning out a response beforehand. 
Most of the time, the questions we receive are asked for further information or clarification and you can view these questions as an opportunity to reinforce your key messages.  If an audience member asks you why a new product release has been delayed, you can finish your answer by reaffirming one of your key points, that all products go through stringent testing to make sure they are of the highest quality before they are released.
Jerry Weissman describes this as ‘top-spin’.  The questioner fires a question to you over the net and you return it with your answer.  The ‘top-spin’ is the extra power you generate by tying your answer back to one of your key messages and that way you are back in control of the rally.

10 tips for answering questions

  1. Listen to the question!

It is so easy as you reach the end of the formal section of your presentation to be distracted by thoughts on what you have just said or considering whether you have covered everything properly, that you do not completely listen to the questioner.  Their question is the most important thing to them and if you do not seem to pay it full attention: at best, you seem distracted and therefore disrespectful; at worst, evasive and dishonest.  And of course, the rest of the room is listening in and drawing their own conclusions from your behaviour.  Therefore as you transition from ‘deliverer’ to ‘receiver’, give yourself a moment to gather your focus.  One way to give yourself some time to readjust is to make a conscious decision to move from one part of the room to another to answer questions.  If you were behind a podium, maybe you could move out.
If you have notes, give yourself a moment to tidy them up, or quite simply keep your eyes lowered for a few moments and only list them when you are ready to start accepting questions.

  1. Look at the questioner

As we have established in previous articles, eye contact offers three things:  it engages the audience, it shows a degree of confidence and most importantly in this case it suggests openness and honesty.
If ever you have gone to a manager and asked for something and found that they did not even look you in the eye as they replied, you will have had a feeling that either they were ‘too busy’ to fully attend or else it seemed that they did not feel the question worthy of their full attention.
One proviso with regard to eye contact is to remain sensitive to any cultural, social or personal elements that would make full unrelenting eye contact either seem rude or intimidating.

  1. Nod

Nodding is a way of showing that you are listening and open to the positive intention behind the question - and even if you do not feel there is a positive intention, at least act as there is!  If you start shaking your head mid-question, it will be perceived that you are rejecting the question or questioner even before they have completely formulated their question, which will make you seem closed and dismissive.
Nodding is also a good way of showing that you are listening when (for any of the social reasons above) you feel it inappropriate to maintain too strong an eye contact.

  1. Pause before answering

Pausing before answering suggests that you are considering the question.  You may have heard the question many times before and you may have your answer ready before the questioner has even finished, but to that questioner, at that moment, their question is original and unique, so taking a moment before answering suggests you are giving it proper consideration.

  1. Beware of a standard or reflex response

Answering each question with:
‘That is a very good question.’
will become repetitive and gradually meaningless, as the audience will be thinking:
‘What! Every question is a very good question?’
Especially when it is clear to everyone in the room that one of the questions was particularly stupid!
If you only answer the occasional question with:
‘That is a very good question.’
then all the other questioners with be wondering:
‘What was wrong with my question?’
Therefore have a range of simple non-judgmental responses that you can use:
‘Thank you for that question.’
‘Thank you.’
a positive sounding ‘Hmmm.’
A silent nod and you are listening and a pause before answering.

  1. Control the ‘idiot dial’

The ‘idiot dial’ is about controlling the expression on your face.
You may have just been asked the most idiotic question you have ever heard! -  and maybe there are even some groans in the audience, but never let your expression give way to your feelings or allow your response to show your acknowledgment of the audience’s reaction.  To that questioner, at that moment, it was a genuine, sincere question, so treat it as such

  1. Know everybody’s name or know nobody’s name

You want to avoid any suggestions of favouritism.  You do not want to set up a contrast between:
‘The gentleman at the back’
(my friend) ‘John’
similar to
‘That is a very good question.’
it is implying that some people’s contributions are more welcome or appreciated that others.
As a principle, I would extend this to any presentation or training that I have conducted.
Before arriving at the venue, I ask for a list of names and if I have the opportunity to learn them and allocate them, then I will make that extra connection and implied compliment by using each person’s name.
On some occasions I have had the liaison person from the organisation sit next to me and write down the questioner’s name for me as I am listening to the question.
On the other hand, if there are too many people in the room, then I will know nobody’s name.
I may have one of my sons sitting in the audience,  but would still address them as ‘Yes please’ or ‘Sir’

  1. Paraphrase

Sometimes you may not completely understand a question or the intent behind the question, so rather than going off in the wrong direction and answering the wrong question (and therefore sounding evasive or just a bit silly) bounce the question back to the questioner:
‘Can I just clarify…?’
‘It sounds like you are asking….’
‘Have I understood….’
(i) This can be done genuinely for further clarification, but it can also be done to win a moment’s time when you are not yet quite sure how to respond.
(ii) It can also be used to disentangle a long rambling statement that barely seems to have a clear question in it.
(iii) It can even be used on occasions to shift the emphasis of the question.  By paraphrasing, you might be able to move the thrust of the question to somewhere where you feel more comfortable answering.
‘You are a large corporation and you regularly launch new products.  Did something go wrong this time? Why was the product launch delayed?’
‘It sounds like you are asking – Am I aware of a particular set of circumstances that have made this launch different from previous ones?’
A determined questioner might insist on sticking to their precise words, but very often as the questioner is also feeling the pressure of the room looking at them, they may accept your paraphrase as being ‘close enough’.
What you want to avoid is the dreadful politician’s:
‘The question you should be asking me…’
which implies evasiveness and rudeness – not to mention a very patronising manner.

  1. Stay composed

You don’t have to agree with every point of view expressed, but you can disagree respectfully.
(Maybe avoid the politician’s ‘with respect’ – which usually means the exact opposite!)
You can push back the question, without pushing back the questioner.
Try to stay calm and measured.  As soon as a level of emotion appears in the speaker’s answers (- therefore save the emotion for your presentation) they audience will be inclined to interpret it negatively, rather than appreciating passion, they sense irrationality, rather an appreciating the feeling, the sense defensiveness or self-justification.

  1. Take back full control

Thank your audience for their questions.  If it seems appropriate express the hope that your answers have helped and refocus them on the key points of your presentation.  Have them leave the room with your message ringing in their ears.

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The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

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