Presentation Skills – Handling Tough Questions

We have all been there. We have just given a perfect presentation to an audience who have responded with a warm round of applause. We are feeling pretty chuffed as everything has gone so well. However all presenters have one final hurdle to overcome. Taking questions after a presentation.

Answer questions confidently and succinctly and you are home and dry. Knowing how to answer questions after a presentation is part and parcel of being an effective presenter.

Any questions? You cheerfully ask

At this point you hope that some kindly soul asks a straight forward question to which you have a well crafted response –  it might have been wise to have “planted” a few easy questions with a friendly colleague who is in the audience to get the first question under your belt.

However today is not that day.  Unfortunately someone has decided that they disagree with some of your comments/content and they are about to let you know by asking a challenging question that puts you right on the spot. Even worse the nature of the question is such that you are unsure how to respond and at the same time you want to limit any damage to your reputation as an effective presenter and subject matter expert.

There are a significant number of techniques to effectively handle tough questions from the audience. When I am faced with this situation I simply think of “who wants to be a millionaire” as an aide memoir to a number of possible techniques one could use to remedy the situation.

What has “who wants to be a millionaire” got to do with handling difficult questions after a presentation I hear you say? Well when a participant on the TV show does not know the answer to a tough question they are given three options. These are……….

  1. Ask the audience
  2. Phone a friend
  3. 50/50

However prior to launching into one of the millionaire techniques above it is recommended that presenters follow the sequence of events below.

  1. Thank the delegate for their question/comment.
  2. Be sure you understand the question – Seek clarification by paraphrasing.
  3. Then use one of the “millionaire techniques”
  4. Thank the delegate for their question/sharing their experiences with the audience.
  5. Next question.

Thank you for your question

Can I just check that I have understood you correctly. What you said is you would like to know………

Have I understood you correctly?

This should at least create some rapport with the questioner in the sense that you are taking their question seriously and want to understand their concern before you respond. This technique creates time and space for you to think and ultimately decide the best course of action to take to handle/diffuse the situation.

Having given yourself the time in which to think, here are the three “millionaire” options you can use to get things back on track.

Option I – Ask the Audience

One option would be to ask the audience if they have any experience of the subject matter?

Many thanks for your question. Sadly I do not have any experience or knowledge of the numbers you are quoting. I wonder if there is anyone in the audience who could respond and add some clarity to our colleagues question?

At this point someone in the audience may actually answer the question on your behalf and you can then thank the questioner and participant for sharing their experience with the audience.

Option 2 – Phone a Friend

This would be where you simply are unable to provide an answer to the question and rather than bluff your way, a better course of action would be to use “phone a friend”.

Many thanks but I cannot provide an answer to your question/concern right now. However I am confident that some of my colleagues will be able provide valuable comment/input. Could we get together after the presentation concludes and exchange details. I will then ask a number of my colleagues who may be in a better position than myself to answer your question.

That way we can get back to you with a response. Is that OK?

Option 3 – 50/50

What I am alluding to here is that there could be two possible correct answers. It is possible that both presenter and questioner could be right as they both are looking at the subject matter from different perspectives. As a consequence they could have opposing views.

Getting into a public debate about who is right and who is wrong would be ill-advised. On the face of it this can be the most difficult situation to handle as both parties want to be seen to be right. To make things worse all of this is being played out in front of an audience.

In this situation you could respond along the following lines;

Many thanks for your question and sharing your point of view with the audience. My viewpoint is based entirely upon my experience of the subject matter to date and I stand by my assertions/findings.

However I would be interested in learning more about your experiences and explore how this might impact on both our points of view. Could we get together in the break and exchange details and find out how we could share our experience. Would that be OK? Thanks once again for sharing your thoughts and I look forward to meeting you in the break.

Do we have any other questions from the audience?

There are many other techniques to handle difficult questions. If you have a great technique for handling difficult questions then why not add them via the comments box.

Happy presenting.


4 Responses

  1. Great article – easy to understand – will remember this next time I am stuck in answering a question!

  2. Lovely post – thank you. I love the ‘Millionaire’ tip.

    Something I use, which I find helps, is to employ the (Transactional Analysis) ‘Yes and..’ answer. As in ‘Yes, and I can see why someone might take that view, as you do. However…’

    When questioners hear you answering ‘yes’ and perhaps nodding, it’s difficult for them to keep up an attack! You are not agreeing with them, you are agreeing that they have the right to ask you that question.

  3. Nice post. One technique I sometimes use, particularly with your option three, is this..

    I use “if/then”. Something along the lines of “I take your point, though I can’t say I agree with you: would you agree that *IF* x, y and z, then I’ve got a point? We can chat about x, y and Z over a coffee if you like!” 🙂


  4. Great post. I like the idea of using “who wants to be a millionaire” as a techniques to help get through the tough questions.
    One technique I’ve found useful to handle difficult questions is to agree with the questioner to relax the audience and remove some of the heat from the question.

    Listen to the question carefully. Pause for a second and then say, “I agree, there is a lot in what you say, but …”
    This technique tends to calm down an irritated questioner and makes him feel that they are sensible and that you agree with much of what he has had to say.

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