Eleven Proven Techniques to Help You Answer Your Audience's Toughest Questions.

Photo by marekuliasz/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by marekuliasz/iStock / Getty Images

In the last blog post, I shared a variety of techniques designed to help you anticipate questions and design the answers right into your presentation.

And since even the most brilliant presentation isn’t going to anticipate and address all of your audience’s questions, this week I’m going to talk about how to answer the questions that do come up in your Q & A session.

Here are eleven techniques that will help you address your audience’s questions like a pro:

  1. Listen carefully. This seems obvious, but when under pressure many speakers are so concerned about their answer they fail to listen carefully to the question being asked – and the one that isn’t being asked overtly. Listen for what isn’t being said. What is the subtext? What is at the emotional core of the question? Make sure you address the overt question and the underlying one in your answer.
  2. Don’t answer a question you don’t understand. We’re often so nervous we start to babble the minute the questioner finishes asking his or her question. If you don’t understand, ask for clarity in a non-confrontational way: “I think I understand your question, would you mind asking it again to make sure?” or “Could you help me understand your question a bit better and why you’re asking it so I can provide the most helpful response possible?” You can also paraphrase the question back to them to ensure you understand what they want you to address. It’s much worse to answer a question that wasn’t asked than to ask for clarification.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take the question offline. Keep the focus of the presentation and the Q & A session in mind. If someone asks a question that is off topic, suggest that they speak to you afterwards so you can keep the discussion focused on the topic at hand. And sometimes you might encounter people who are looking for free advice and they ask complex questions that require more time and information to address properly. Acknowledge some of the variables that would inform your advice, provide some general guidance with the appropriate caveats and suggest that you connect offline to discuss further.
  4. Validate the question. Some people who ask questions just need to be heard and they won’t listen to your answer if they don’t think you’ve heard them. Show some empathy and reflect back what you're sensing: “That sounds frustrating.” Then pause for a moment and if you have it right, they will nod. Then provide your answer and show you know why it’s frustrating: “Trying to prepare quarter-end statements for a publicly traded company using Excel is like trying to build a house with cardboard. Here’s what you might want to do...”
  5. Collect your thoughts. It is okay to pause and take a beat as long as you look physically comfortable while you collect your thoughts. Avoid physically recoiling, expressing nervous energy or saying things like “Okkkaaaaay….ummmmmm….wellllll….”. This does not engender confidence. It’s more powerful to pause and think than employ transparent tactics to buy time like repeating the question for the sake of buying time.  
  6. Structure your answer. To help you organize your thoughts and ensure your audience is clear on what you’re saying, it helps to physically and orally enumerate your response: “A few things come to mind. First…". When you enumerate, you speak with a lot more clarity, conviction and authority and you will be more inclined to be concise. But it's important not to commit the number of points you are going to share in your response, lest you have less than you thought, or lose track of them while you're answering. In the infamous “Oops” moment in the last Republican primaries, if Governor Perry had said, “There are a few agencies of government that are gone when I get there. First, Commerce. Second Education. And that’s just to get us started”, we may have had a very different outcome in 2012. (He said there were three agencies he wanted to cut and then couldn't remember the third!  It was painful to watch. You can see the clip here.)
  7. Leverage the audience. You don't have to have all the answers. When a speaker can share his or her thoughts in response to a question and invite input from colleagues or other audience members, it demonstrates confidence, professional courtesy and commitment to ensure the questioner gets the information and insight they need.
  8. Answer with your eyes. Begin your response by making eye contact with the person who asked the question. This helps ensure that they feel heard and acknowledged. As you continue your response, include the rest of your audience in your eye contact and then finish your answer by looking at original questioner. This bookend approach is respectful, inclusive and commanding.
  9. Respond with “it depends”. It’s often acceptable and useful to provide a “range response” to a question from two ends of a spectrum. It might sound something like this: “I don’t know the exact context for you, but here are some ideas that might help. On one end of the continuum, we have no data security back up measures. Here’s where you should start...[provide insight, ideas, advice]…and on the other end, we have so many safeguards that it denigrates the user experience in a material way …[insight, ideas, advice].  Does that give you a few ways to begin to approach the problem?”
  10. Answer the question asked. Don’t be a politician and answer the question you wished they had asked. Don’t go looking for questions for your answers. It is incredibly hard to do this well. Few people can do it and you might not want to be a member of the club of those who can!
  11. Be concise. Verbosity belies your command of your topic. At the very least, provide an initial concise response. Then pause. Elaborate only if you have something additional (and helpful) to say.

Q & A sessions can be stressful. And they can also be opportunities for you to showcase your expertise, confidence and comfort as a speaker. Anticipate and address as many questions as you can in your presentation content and then relax, listen, respond and invite others into the conversation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you feel about Q & A sessions? What techniques do you use to answer questions on the fly? Do you have any Q & A stories of terror or triumph? Share your experience in the comments below.

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