Help! How do I handle questions in my presentation?

Good question!

Seriously, if you’re giving some thought to your audience’s likely questions, you’re way ahead of many other presenters. Whilst it’s essential to prepare your material and yourself, there’s much more to a successful presentation than the ‘ME show’. Failing to prepare for your audience – and their questions – is preparing to fail. And yet so many presenters can fall into this trap. Take these 7 steps to handle questions well.

Before your presentation

1.Prepare
One essential way to handle audience questions is to build them into your preparation. When you’re creating your presentation, you’ll need to set clear objectives and do your homework on your audience. Miss these essential steps – by simply firing up the last presentation you did – and you’ll be heading for trouble. See this post: ‘Creating a presentation? 3 things you must do first’.

Some psychological preparation may also be needed: all too often, we can interpret audience questions as some kind of challenge – or worse, attack. Being human, our next move may be a ‘fight or flight’ response – not helpful. Remember that questions are what arise when our audience is trying to understand, sense check and assimilate what we’re on about. Seen through that lens, questions are a welcome sign your audience is engaged.

2.Play devil’s advocate
Once you’ve set your objectives, take a good look and brainstorm some likely questions, objections and challenges that your audience might reasonably have.

Consider how you might answer these, and if there are other members of your team who’ll be better placed to deal with them (and if so, be sure to run through this with them ahead of the presentation).

3.Rehearse
Only then will you know if your presentation flows well, is coherent and delivers what it’s supposed to for your audience. As you rehearse, you’ll spot those points where people will have questions – what might they need to know? How can you back up your points? Now’s the time to assemble your evidence. Have a crib sheet for handy reference.

4.Plan
Consider when you’ll take questions. If you’ve done your homework on your audience, you’ll know if they’re more formal and like a Q&A session at the end, or maybe they’re more spontaneous and usually ask questions as the presentation progresses. Or both. Plan to allow a good chunk of time for questions – they’re better dealt with in the moment (if possible) rather than via an email exchange afterwards, and nothing’s more frustrating than running out of time to deal with them.

Think it’s going to be tough? Generate a list of questions you dread and come up with answers to them. Where might they need convincing? Whose opinions do they respect? What supporting evidence will you need? Don’t go it alone here: get input from colleagues and your manager. If there are experts on your team, ensure everyone knows who’ll be fielding what questions.

During your presentation

5.Note
Ensure that every audience question is noted – ideally where all can see. A flipchart is fine, or magic whiteboard, or Post-Its. If you’re the lead presenter noting questions may not be your role – it could be another team member, or even an audience member. Check with the questioner that their question has been understood and accurately noted and ask them to expand if any clarification is needed. (if this is starting to sound a bit, well, basic – ask yourself how clear you and your team were about the audience’s questions after your last presentation…)

6.Facilitate
If you’re the best person to answer a question, go ahead. Ideally, you’ll be able to facilitate discussion at this stage, involving the best colleagues to answer a particular question (rather than you hogging the mic the whole time). As facilitator, you can check that the question has been answered and get agreement to move on. Ensure that answers given are noted next to each question asked; this provides clarity and a handy way of wrapping up the presentation. What if you don’t know the answer? Don’t be tempted to bluff – it never ends well. You can look towards your colleagues for a volunteer, but if they don’t know either it’s time to fess up and say when you’ll get the answer and to whom it will be sent. Some questions may need further discussion before you can respond; again, simply say so and agree when you’ll follow up.

After your presentation

7.Follow up
There may have been questions that no-one anticipated; you’ll need to follow up on these. Or it might simply be a case of emailing a link, research report, or case study to all those present, to cover off a query raised. Be sure to ASK the question: ‘are there any further questions?’

You may find this post useful: ‘7 presentation tips from TED’s Chris Anderson’

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