Without exception one of the key issues we are asked to help people with in our presentation skills workshops is learning how to answer difficult questions more professionally.
Many presenters dread the Q & A because having invested so much time and energy researching and crafting the presentation they are now vulnerable and no longer in complete control.
- Will they ask me a question I just don’t know the answer to?
- What if I can’t answer, will I look stupid and lose credibility?
- What if they don’t like or agree with my answer?
- What if the question derails my presentation?
As you can imagine the list of imagined ‘what if’s’ is a long one.
These 6 tips will go long way to restoring your confidence and chances of retaining control of all of the hard work you have done so far.
1. Step into the question
Have you ever noticed that when many presenters are asked a question the first thing they do is to take a step back if their standing or lean back in their chair if sitting. When it’s a question they don’t know the answer to you can pretty much guarantee you will see it.
There’s even a term for it: ‘Being on the back foot’
We teach people to do the opposite, to step into or lean into the question, especially if it’s one that makes you uncomfortable or you don’t know the answer to. The forward movement towards your audience makes a statement that you’re in control and remain confident even if you don’t feel it in that moment.
Try it out and see for yourself.
2. Reframe it
Our primitive fight or flight system kicks in with a vengeance when we even consider the possibility of either not being able to answer a question or being challenged.
It’s entirely normal but there is another way.
Consider this for a moment.
If your audience asks questions it strongly suggests you have not only captured and held their attention but you have engaged them and stimulated thought. High impact presenting isn’t about telling people what you think, imposing ideas and then running for the hills.
It’s about inspiring thought, sometimes challenging beliefs and at the very least creating a conversation. The nervous energy you feel in the moment is entirely natural. It’s your body telling you that you are alive, that you care and that you want to do well.
Acknowledge the nerves and channel the energy to your advantage.
The best way to do that is to breathe deeply as you listen to and consider the question. Your audience wants you to do well, no one is there to catch you out or watch you squirm. They also know that you are human just like them and simply can’t know the answer to everything.
3. Look at them
When you don’t know the answer to a question or feel uncomfortable answering it your eyes are often the first things to hit the floor. The best way to answer any question and retain control is to make eye contact.
Interestingly, many presenters who are able to do so tend to hold eye contact with the questioner only and forget the rest of the audience. Don’t make that mistake, you will exude more confidence and retain rapport if you acknowledge the question and questioner with eye contact and then involve the rest of the audience with your response through eye contact also.
4. Answer it anyway
If a member of your audience asks you a question you really just don’t know the answer to then ensure they know that you don’t have the explicit answer for them in that moment but that you will make it your business to get it for them.
Don’t make one up.
That said, once you’ve told them you don’t know one of the things you may enjoy doing is offering a thought or view on the question before you look for the correct answer. The caveat is to make it very clear that your comments don’t represent the answer which you’ve already promised to find out, it’s simply a perspective.
Your audience will welcome and respect the fact that you’ve been honest but are also prepared to think about it on the spot.
5. Learn from them
The thing I really value about being asked questions I don’t know the answer to is that it creates a learning opportunity.
Life and business is a perpetual ‘work in progress’ and I can’t even begin to imagine a day when any of us will stop learning.
As someone extremely passionate about the art and science of connecting with fellow professionals I welcome being stretched and challenged to keep learning.
That’s another reframe of course.
Instead of being terrified of losing credibility, try to see the benefit in that you get to find out the answer to something you really don’t know. The fact that both you and the even possibly the questioner may believe you should know the answer already doesn’t matter.
Accept the opportunity to learn graciously.
6. Take the emotional charge out
Every now and then you may face what feels like a hostile question. The person asking may be frustrated, concerned or just simply doesn’t understand your perspective or perhaps agree with you.
That could lead to you feeling that the questioner wants an argument or that they won’t rest until you concede to their way of thinking.
If you feel that’s the case and that you’re getting nowhere fast, try this:
- Listen very carefully to the question and make sure you completely understand it.
- Try to find something the person is saying that you can genuinely agree with. That doesn’t mean agreeing with something you don’t. Once you’ve found something in their words no matter how small that makes some kind of sense to you and you can see their perspective acknowledge it.
- Shut up – I mean it, you’ve listened intently, and you’ve acknowledged or agreed (genuinely) with some small element that they said and now you need to pause and say nothing.
Many presenters are uncomfortable with the idea and feel compelled to continue speaking, don’t do it, and have the courage to hold your ground for as long as it takes and watch the emotional charge begin to dissipate.
Rather than quaking at the thought of being asked a question you don’t know the answer to or one that feels challenging try these 6 tips to see what works for you.
This post originally appeared on the Mindful Presenter blog. Maurice De Castro is a former corporate executive of some of the UK’s best loved brands. He’s a highly experienced leader and presentation skills coach with over 20 years of experience. Maurice is director of Mindful Presenter — a team of business professionals who design and deliver bespoke presentation skills training courses. You’ll also find Maurice on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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