How to deal with difficult questions from the floor

By: Anthony Garvey

Date: 22 May 2013

How to deal with difficult questions from the floor/chalk drawing{{}}You’ve given your presentation or made a speech. It has gone brilliantly — although you say it yourself. You ask if there are any questions … and over the next few minutes your smile begins to fade as you are caught off guard by a series of tricky and complicated questions from the audience.

Your failure to answer them convincingly undoes much of the good work you had put in during your speech. So how did it all go so wrong?

Here are eight tips to help you prepare:

  1. When you’ve finished preparing your presentation, sit with a blank sheet of paper and write down and answer some easy questions you think you may be asked. Then tackle some of the more awkward questions you can think of. Ask a trusted friend to listen to your speech and get them to ask you some questions too. Importantly you should also ask them to give you feedback on your answers to their questions.
  2. It’s important to anticipate the mood of the audience in advance. If you expect the atmosphere to be tense or confrontational, then give yourself more time to prepare for the Q&A session. 
  3. It’s a good idea to start off a Q&A session getting the person who introduced you to ask the first question, a pre-agreed question for which you are fully prepared. Another tip is to ask and answer the first question yourself. This allows you to set the agenda.
  4. Watch out for any hidden agenda questions. Don’t dismiss or brush off these questions. Listen carefully and you will be able to answer both their initial query and address the underlying problem.
  5. From time to time we are all asked questions we don’t know the answer to or even worse, are asked questions we feel we ought to know the answer to, but don’t. It is best in these circumstances to be honest and open, rather than bluff or waffle. A suitable response might be: “I don’t have that information to hand right now, but if you leave your contact details with me, I will send it through to you later today.”
  6. Pause. Pausing for a few seconds to consider your reply before leaping straight into an answer may feel unnatural at first, but with practice it can give you the extra seconds you need to formulate a coherent reply.
  7. When the Q&A session has finished ideally you should be the last person to leave the room, giving you time to address any final concerns people may have on a one-to-one basis.
  8. Finally, joining a public speaking club such as Toastmasters can be a great way to practice presentation skills in a safe and encouraging environment. In particular, taking part in impromptu speaking session (often known as table topics) where a member is asked to speak for up to two minutes on a subject they have not previously seen is great preparation for answering difficult questions. Taking part in these activities allows speakers to develop their ability to organise their thoughts quickly, an essential weapon in a speaker’s armoury when mastering the Q&A session.

Anthony Garvey is founder of Quinn Garvey PR and a member of Toastmasters International.

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