Podcast: Dealing Proactively with Audience Questions

What’s the best way to handle questions from the audience when presenting? This podcast examines key things you can do to deal proactively with audience questions. [Script Available]

Podcast Script

How many of you have read or been told that the secret to making a good presentation is, “just be yourself.” “Just be natural,” they tell us, “and everything will work out just fine.”

But what if naturally you’re really bad at giving presentations?

I once had a class on presentations, years ago, and in it the instructor insisted that a good way to put yourself and your audience at ease was to tell a joke.

A classmate of mine really took the instructor’s advice to heart for his maiden speech.

After about a 20 second awkward pause, staring at us, we staring back, he started: “Have you ever heard the one about the guy, the penguin, and the elephant that walk into the bar?”

If you want the punchline you can email me. The point is that gimmicks don’t work.

The fact is that most good presenters spend more time practicing than bad presenters.

They take seriously the preparation needed, they understand their material, they definitely understand the audience, and they work to adapt the information they have to that audience given the time required and according to any other constraints that might face them, such as technology issues, etc.

Now I’d need a really long podcast to give you advice on everything that you need to know to practice and do to put together a good presentation, or at least a good presentation methodology that you then could employ for almost any situation.

Given this, let’s just focus one thing for now.

What’s the best way to handle questions from the audience when presenting?

It is an important part of any good presentation, and if not done correctly can turn a good presentation quickly into a bad one.

So here we go:


Do tell the audience how you’d like to deal with questions, at the very beginning of your presentation (let them know you’d prefer to save them for the end, or if you are going to deal with them during the presentation, tell them you would like for them to please raise their hands)

Now admittedly this can feel very formal in a more informal situation, such as presenting to a group of peers or a smaller audience. But you can effect the same result albeit informally. Indicate that you have a lot to get through in a short amount of time and you’d like to save questions for the end? An always effective technique in such a small gathering is to ask permission from your audience to do this. Most reasonable people will agree.

Do not answer a question unless you know the answer.

Be honest, say you don’t know it, and then indicate that you will find out as fast as possible and get the answer for them. In most cases, if you’ve prepared, you’ll know the answer, but the audience could ask something off topic or regarding a specific item. If it requires additional research, maybe means you need to involve someone else, then let them know. You can’t know everything, especially if it goes outside of your area of expertise. Be honest. “I’m not sure or I don’t know, but let me check into that. I’ll try to find out as soon as possible.”

Do not get into a one-on-one conversation with a single questioner.

Nothing bothers people more, especially those that have paid as much as the other guy, if the presenter gets bogged down in a long conversation with a single questioner. If you are presenting, you present to a group, not one person. If someone has a question that requires a long answer that doesn’t serve the interests of the larger group, provide an abbreviated answer and then indicate you can speak to that person afterwards to talk in more detail.

Do not get angry or confrontational

It doesn’t do you or your audience any good for you to get angry. You need to stay in control, even if someone in the audience asks a question that is offensive or confrontational. Since you’re in the spotlight, people see how you react more so than the questioner. You can certainly disagree, but do so professionally. “I’m not sure I agree with your position” or “I think I understand your perspective on this…certainly there can be multiple sides to any issue, but I feel this way because…”

Stay in control.

Do not tell every questioner, “that’s a great question.”

Really, the one that asks something about what was just on the slide because they weren’t paying attention, that’s a good question?

Save that for the boss or someone who really does ask a good question, or just avoid it altogether. I don’t know how many presentations I’ve been to where the presenter keeps on saying, good question.

Do repeat the question.

This is really important, and even in a more informal setting, even a smaller audience, there is value for doing it.

You repeat the question because…

o everyone can hear it
o so you can rephrase it to make it your own or to make it applicable to everyone or to the subject matter (questions can take you off track if you’re not careful)
o and because you repeat it you have time to think about an answer while you repeat it, avoiding the awkward “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”

In the end, handling questions requires the same proactive preparation that other parts of the presentation require. If we ignore this crucial area of the presentation we can become reactive, and reactive presenting, like anything else, can get us in trouble. It means that we are responding to others, which means we’re no longer in control, and the one hallmark of a good professional presentation is that the presenter is in control of the information from start to finish.

How do we stay in control even when the oddball question is thrown our way, when we have to stop the well-rehearsed slides we’ve practice so carefully and turn things over to the audience?

Anticipate. It is the key thing we can do to make ready for questions. Anticipate the hardest question, the worst possible question, the really off topic question, and then be prepared to answer them. Have co-workers play the role of difficult questioners and ask them to challenge you and your information. You can anticipate and proactively deal with such difficulties before they occur, when it is too late and you’re standing up there in front of everyone without any clue about how to answer the question.

You should prepare for the worst and expect the best. Prepare for difficult questions, for technology not to work, for anything that might be able to cause problems. Then have a way to deal with them, proactively.

If you are prepared, if you do anticipate, do repeat the question, do avoid being confrontational, do keep from talking just to one person, do only give answers you know are right, then you’ll do a good job handling questions from the audience.

And this is one key part of crafting a good presentation.

I’m Brian Still, for the Professional Communication Society.