Presentation skills

Dealing confidently with questions

One of the key qualities of an effective presentation is the confidence of the presenter.

Effective presenters are self-assured and have confidence in themselves and their knowledge of the material — but that doesn’t mean displaying arrogance and brashness, that only alienates an audience.

There’s a virtuous circle of confidence: you behave with confidence in your presentation, the audience feels confident you know what you’re doing and their confidence in you bolsters your self-confidence.

For many people, the time they dread most in a presentation is when the questions start. You can practise your presentation until you can do it in your sleep but, when they ask questions, you can never be sure of what’s coming. It's the one thing you can’t practise.

On the other hand, if you can deal confidently with questions you’ll convince them you really are on top of your game.

So, when someone asks a question —

  1. Relax and smile — let them see you’re pleased someone is interested enough to want to ask a question.
  2. Think before answering. It’s OK to pause — it shows you’re considering the question. Confident presenters know they don’t need to blurt out the first thing that comes into their heads — that’s a sign of panic, not self-assurance.
  3. Allow the questioner to finish their question, it may not end up being the question you might have anticipated from the opening remarks.
  4. The questioner wants an answer, not a wide-ranging review and there may be some for whom the question has no relevance. So, for everyone’s benefit, keep the answer short.
  5. Rephrase the question to make sure you understood it and to confirm to the questioner that you’ve understood.
  6. If you aren't sure of what the questioner was asking, get them to rephrase the question. You have the confidence to spend a little time getting the question clear before you give your answer. Blurting out an answer is a sign of panic and can often result in giving the wrong answer or answering a question that wasn’t asked.
  7. Turn the question back to the audience: “Has anyone else come across this problem? And what did you do?” Thus you will widen the participation, gather opinions from people who may well be able to answer the question for you and, if you need it, buy a little time to formulate your reply.
  8. It may seem counter-intuitive but it’s only the really confident presenter who can tell an audience that they don’t know the answer. No one knows everything — you know an enormous amount about your subject and even you haven’t come across that question before. Thank them for raising such an interesting issue and tell them that you'll be interested to find out the answer and will get back to them.
  9. Look directly at the person asking the question — let them know you’re glad of their contribution. Being unwilling to look them in the eye suggests that you consider them a threat and that indicates a lack of confidence.
  10. If the questioner interrupted you, don’t interrupt then in return — you’ll end up with two people talking at once and it will look as though you are unwilling to take the question. And there’s just a chance that they had to interrupt because you weren’t giving the audience sufficient opportunity to ask questions — another sure sign of a lack of confidence.
  11. Invite questions from all sections of the room and, if there seems to be a section of the audience that is less receptive to your presentation, encourage them to ask questions. It shows your confidence and often helps draw out anything that may be stopping them fully appreciating your message.
  12. Don't call one person by name unless you are going to address everyone by name — it can look as though you are favouring some people over others and encouraging questions only from your friends. Nameplates can be useful — ask people to write in whatever form of address they would like you to use. If you don't have nameplates, ask them to give their name at the start of their question and use it in your reply.
  13. If the audience is drawn from a range of backgrounds, get them to say which area they are from. This can give you an insight into their question, allow you to make your response more relevant to them and cue the rest of the audience to the question’s context.
  14. Never show impatience, annoyance or other negative reactions to a question. Apart from the offence it causes to the questioner, it betrays your lack of confidence in dealing with questions and, by implication, in your ability to deliver an effective presentation.
  15. Separate multiple questions into parts, identify them for the audience, answer each part separately and make sure that you’ve dealt with each section before moving on to the next. Summarise at the end.
  16. For questions of little relevance to the rest of the audience, suggest the questioner speak to you after the presentation.
  17. After you have given your answer, ask the questioner if you have answered their question. You may need to elaborate on some aspect of what you have already said and, if you did get the wrong end of the stick, it’s best to find out at that stage.

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