I have just attended a 3-day conference in Adelaide where I was both an audience member and a keynote speaker. One of the common themes that I noticed with the presenters was that they often struggled with difficult or left field questions from the audience. The question surprised them, they lost some confidence and in some cases their credibility as the expert suffered. The reality is that during any presentation you are likely to get some difficult questions or a contentious question or have an audience member who disagrees with your point of view. There are several ways to deal with these difficult questions and maintain your confidence and credibility.
1. As with most things preparation is important.
Do your homework and be prepared for those left field questions or the objections that you know people will raise. It is about anticipation and planned spontaneity. Are you delivering bad news or good news? Is your subject contentious or straight forward? Who will be in the audience? You can prepare by setting the ground rules of your presentation up front and outline what you will be talking about and what you will not be talking about. That way you can dismiss those questions that are outside your intended scope. Try to anticipate those tricky questions. Robert Schuller said “Spectacular performance is always preceded by spectacular preparation” and Tony Robbins said, “Repetition is the mother of skill”. So do lots of preparation and ask yourself, “What question do I not want to be asked; what question would make me uncomfortable; and what questions would make me look less credible”. Then have prepared answers for all of these questions.
2. Find some point of agreement with your challenger
If the question is an objection and in complete disagreement with you, then you can agree with them in part. Agree with the person on some level and then add your opinion, new findings or alternate slant to bring the topic back to your stated position. You may have to resist your gut instinct to get defensive and argumentative. Finding some point of agreement, however small, with your challenger, helps you appear to be an open minded and well researched person to the audience. You can agree in part and then add your difference and your justification for this difference.
3. Get back to them
No one can know everything and be able to answer every possible question or objection on the spot. Especially if it is a technical question or data related and you may need to refer to colleagues or the data source before you can answer it. But as a good leader or good trainer you know where to get the answer or you know how to find out and you can agree to get back to them. Our politicians often take difficult questions on notice and then have 72 hours to respond. These are “Questions On Notice”. Don’t bluff or make up answers, rather find out and get back to them all, in an agreed and reasonable time frame.
4. Agree to discuss after the presentation
If the question is one that does not relate to the rest of the audience and you can see the audience glaze over and lose interest, then agree to discuss the question outside of the presentation. This can be in the tea break or at the back of the room or even via e-mail. This is especially the case if their question or concern is off the topic or outside of the scope of what you are speaking on. Thus the audience may not understand the question anyhow (a niche question) and you can agree to discuss one on one at a later time. This is also an important strategy if you see that the questioner has become emotionally invested in the question and you need to provide a safe environment in which to respond.
5. Involve them in the discussion
You can include their comments or their suggestions in your discussions and your presentation. You can ask the audience what they think, or if they can add any more to the question. But please do not set out to embarrass them or disparage their viewpoint, rather explain why you have a different idea or viewpoint. Do this respectfully. Involving them can often defuse a tricky question and even if your final view is different to their point of view, at least they know that you have considered their point of view in reaching your own view. The audience will also notice that you have been respectful and considered in your response to an objection or alternate view to yours. It may be that you agree to disagree. And this will build rapport and credibility.
6. Don’t make it up
Fake it until you make it does not apply to answering questions. This is not the time to guess, take a punt or extrapolate your answer. Most people will be carrying a smart device and will be able to check on any wayward or unconvincing answer. If the question is valid and relevant to what you have been speaking about and you do not know the answer, then as with point 3 above, agree to find out and get back to them.
So don’t fear your question and answer session, rather do lots of practice and anticipation, become comfortable with silence and deep breathing if you feel defensive or confronted and use some of the strategies above and you will be fine. Preparation, anticipation and practice, along with a few simple tools, are the secret to successful question and answer sessions. My thinking and speaking off the cuff workshop teaches people how to prepare for and handle difficult questions.