How to handle questions during a presentation

male presenter giving a presentation while people take photos

When someone asks you a question, either in work or in everyday life, how do you usually respond? Do you take a minute to think about your answer before launching into an explanation? Do you interpret their question as a challenge of your authority/knowledge/intelligence and become defensive? Do you answer a question with another question? Did you notice that we’re asking a lot of questions right now…?

There are seemingly a thousand ways to answer a question and the kind of answer you give and how you deliver it can go along way in helping to build positive relationships with other people, as well as facilitating constructive and helpful debates and conversations about certain issues and topics.

This is especially true in workplace environments, where you may be giving a presentation to your client, or delivering the quarterly business results to your team. Questions may arise from the audience, which do have the potential to throw your presentation off course or set a bad tone in the room if not handled well. Some people can even inadvertently come across as rude, curt or dismissive when answering questions, simply because they feel attacked or they’re rushing to get back to their presentation before they lose their train of thought.

So in today’s blog post we’ve given you some advice to follow when answering questions that arise while giving a presentation, and how to always remain courteous, on-track and respectful of the question-asker – so that in turn, you look professional and knowledgeable.

Realise that questions are a good thing

It’s important to remember first and foremost that the fact that people are asking you a question in the first place means that they’re interested and engaged in what you have to say. Either they want more information, they need clarification, they’re curious to know more, or they want to test your thinking, logic, and recommendations. So, a question should always be taken as a good sign, and met with an extra boost of enthusiasm and confidence on your side.

Make eye contact with the questioner

Unfortunately, we’ve seen all too many presenters use the fact that someone has asked a question as an opportunity to adjust their microphone, check their slides, tie their shoelace, drink some water, wander around the stage… And we can’t say how much of a big no-no this is! Becoming immediately distracted when someone is asking you a question can make you look as though you don’t really care about the question being asked, and can be quite disrespectful. So be sure to maintain eye contact, nod regularly, and give the questioner your full attention.

Always take a brief pause before launching into your answer

No matter whether someone is asking for some data or facts from you, questioning your way of doing things, or simply asking for more information, the first thing to do is to pause briefly after they’re finished asking their question, even if you know what your answer will be straight away.

There are 3 main reasons for this:

  • It gives the person time to finish their question, and add any clarifying points.
  • It shows that you are taking the time to consider the question, which shows respect.
  • It gives you time to think of the best answer, and deliver it eloquently, rather than launching in, rushing through, and coming across as confused or uncertain.

Be sure that you understand the question they are asking or point that they’re making

One of the best communication techniques in life and business is to clarify and even repeat or paraphrase a question or point someone is making to you, as it helps avoid misunderstandings. This is no less true while giving presentations as well, so when needed be sure to ask the questioner to expand or fine tune their point. Remember, if you don’t know the question, chances are you’ll give the wrong answer. Repeating or paraphrasing a question also has the added bonus of ensuring that everyone else in the room has heard the question as well.

Acknowledge how valuable the question they’re asking is

The old saying, “there are no silly questions” definitely rings true here, so you need to communicate this by making the questioner feel that their question was valid and constructive.  This needs to be done genuinely, and there are plenty of good ways to express an acknowledgement before giving your response:

  • “That’s a question I asked myself”
  • “That’s a question a lot of people have asked us recently”
  • “I’m not surprised you’re asking that given …”
  • “I think the point you’re making is a good one”
  • “That’s a question we have discussed at length within our team”
  • “In most situations, you’d be right, and I would agree with you”
  • “That’s a really interesting point and not one we had considered”

It’s a good idea to practise these regularly but always make sure the way you acknowledge the question is genuine or you’ll sound rehearsed and not authentic or credible as a presenter

Always keep your cool

When it comes time to actually give your answer don’t get angry or defensive, no matter what the question is. We’ve all seen those video clips of celebs or politicians losing their temper after an interviewer asks them a less-than-favourable-question, and the only one who almost always comes off looking silly is the interviewee themselves. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, even if the question was intended to be intentionally provocative, losing it or getting visibly emotional will make you come across as immature and unprofessional. If you feel yourself getting emotional, simply ask if you can get back to them at a later time.

Be honest if you don’t know the answer

We all have to admit to bluffing our way through an answer to a question we’re just not 100% sure of every now and then… But a presentation is not the time to do it. Making up an answer or trying to dance around the question completely is a surefire way to come across like you don’t know what you’re talking about, which can really undermine your confidence for the rest of the presentation. Instead, tell them what you do know, or admit you don’t have the answer and that you’ll get back to them as soon as you can. Be sure to always remain in control of your presentation.

Answer in sections if the question is a long one

If the question is a particularly long one, ‘chunk’ up your answer into sections so your answer stays clear and concise. For example, if someone asks you when a project is going to be completed, you might say: “That’s actually a critical question as timings on this project are particularly tight (acknowledging worth). Based on our last status update, stage 1 will be completed by xxx, stage 2 by xxx and stage 3 by xxx.” Or, if their question is multi-part, answer each part separately before moving onto the next. You could say something like “And to address the second part of your question…”

Check-in with the questioner after you have given your response

After you finish your answer it’s important to check-in with the questioner to make sure that you’ve answered the question to their satisfaction. You can do this by simply asking:

  • “Does that answer your question?”
  • “Can I provide you with any more detail?”

Or, you can also check in non-verbally, such as by making eye contact with them and smiling. If you get a smile back, you can assume you’ve answered the question to their satisfaction. If you get a puzzled look or a frown, we recommend you follow up with a verbal check-in.

So, by following these important points, and being thoroughly prepared before your presentation, it will help to calm your nerves and leave you feeling ready to engage with your audience, stimulate constructive conversations, all while looking confident, professional and in control.

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