5 Steps to answering questions effectively in presentations

presentations, Q&A, questions, answersHere’s a neat quote – “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll understand. Get me involved, I’ll remember” – this is a saying from an ancient philosopher – (a bit of a cop out but I can’t remember who exactly!).

Audience interaction is a powerful way of getting your audience involved with your presentation. And by getting them involved, you’re getting them to remember your presentation.

Perhaps the most common and simplest interaction technique is to invite your audience to ask you questions. Many people worry about holding a Q&A in their presentation, particularly those people that experience a high level of anxiety with presentations. Worrying about not knowing the answer, saying the wrong thing, or getting challenged are commonly cited reasons. These worries might be enough to deliberately avoid inviting questions from the audience, but at the same time you may be missing out on the opportunity to give people vital information that they need from you to support your cause. More often than not there’s more to gain than lose by inviting your audience to interact with questions and answers.

I coach people boost their presentation skills with how to go about responding to all sorts of question types and styles, in a variety of interesting situations. There are at least a dozen posts here, but for this post I’ve promised to outline a 5 step method that can work for any question that you may get in a presentation environment. So, here we go…

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Step 1: Shut up and listen

Listen to the entire question and listen to the way that the question is being asked to you. In conversation it often easy and common to cut someone off whilst they are mid sentence. Perhaps this is because you think you know what they are thinking and you just can’t wait to get your response out. Whilst you can get away with this in a hallway conversation, you can’t in a presentation. Refrain yourself from interrupting the person asking the question, and ensure you listen to their entire question. If you miss part of it, apologise and ask them to kindly repeat it.

Whilst you are listening to them, also listen to the tone of their voice. Is it calm, excited, or upset? And observe their body language and gestures. This often gives added context and meaning to the question.

Having heard the question in full…

Step 2: Repeat what you just heard

The next step is to move to stand facing in front of the person asking the question (but not too close) and repeat the entire question. Always repeat the question when you have a large audience, and use your discretion when you have a more intimate group. There are four key reasons for repeating a question:

  1. It allows everyone in your audience to hear the entire question. How many times have you failed to understand a presenter’s answer to the question because you couldn’t hear the question in the first place? Repeating the question allows everyone in the audience to appreciate and fully understand your response, and makes them feel like you are providing an answer to everyone not just the person who happened to ask the question.
  2. It allows the person asking the question to hear their own question being played back, and (i) confirm that they have said what they had meant to say and (ii) confirm that you have heard what they wanted you to hear. By the same token, if the question was very long or confusing – you could paraphrase it and check that you have understood the essence of the question correctly, or you could ask a question back to refine the question – for example you could say “Is your question asking …” followed by what you understood the question to be in your own words.
  3. Thirdly, as an effective presenter you are in a position of authority in the room. By you stating the question you are somewhat elevating the profile of the question to some ‘official’ status, and at the same time making the person asking the question feel more special or important.
  4. And finally, it gives you time to evaluate the question being asked and formulate the response you want to give

Step 3: Shut up again (…momentarily)

After you have reiterated the question to your audience, pause for a brief moment. Do not immediately start answering a question even if it’s one you have prepared for. There are at least 3 good reasons for pausing.

  1. It allows the rest of the audience to comprehend the question
  2. It creates a perception that you giving the question some thought, and therefore respect
  3. By pausing for roughly an equal amount of time for both straightforward and tough questions, you disguise from your audience which questions you find difficult to answer and which ones you don’t. The consistency makes you look better prepared, and more confident and polished.

And some tips if you need a little bit longer to think about how to respond to a question, you could take a drink of water, walk to another part of your presentation area, or even comment on the question itself before starting to answer it.

Step 4: Now answer the question

Engage the person asking the question with eye contact and answer the question as best you can.

This is where you should also look to reinforce your main points and core message. You could consider recognising the question for example by saying something like “that’s a really important question…” or you could look to broaden or narrow the subject area relating to the question to ensure that your response reaffirms what you have said in your presentation. Just be careful not to respond with either too little of what they are really asking you.

A strategy you can use to make your audience feel like you are directly answering their question is to start your answer with their question.

For example if you are asked – “How long does it take to be a master of presentation skills”, you could reply by starting with “The time taken to become a master of presentation skills is….” instead of “Mastery requires a number of pieces to come together…”. You can broaden your response to cover your key message after you directly answer the question first.

After you have responded to the question, the final step is…

Step 5: Transition to the next question

Your transition includes the following elements:

  • Confirm with the person asking the question, whether you have answered their question. You can do that by saying – “Does that help you?”, or “Does that make sense?” for example. If you are unsure whether you have given enough detail in your response, you could ask them – “Is that sufficient or would you like more detail?”
  • Once the person positively responds, you can thank them for their question and invite the next question.
  • If the person does not provide a positive confirmation, ask them to clarify and treat as if it were another question.
  • Ensure that you take questions from all parts of the audience. Don’t favour one particular part of the audience such as the front row, and don’t let one person hijack the whole Q&A session. If you have a hijacker, you can always respond with “hold onto your next question, let’s take one from this side next”

If you find that you are unlikely to exhaust all questions without overrunning, let your audience know that you’re hard pressed for time now, praise them for the quality of questions that they had raised, and let them know where they can continue to find out more or ask more questions – for example come and see me outside the room, I’ll make myself available for the next half an hour.

Like every other aspect of your presentation, questions from the audience also take some preparing. Make sure you take the time to brainstorm what the likely questions from your audience might be, and how you would like to answer them.

Do this and follow the five steps in your next presentation, and you might wonder why you ever worried about inviting questions in past presentations.

What other strategies or tips have worked for you? I’m always on the lookout for experiences to share with my students and followers.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Dipan, Thanks for the wonderful post about the 5 Steps to answering questions effectively.

    If you could, would appreciate tips to manage situations effectively where the presenter doesnt know an answer to a question instantaneously.

    Situation: A senior operational stakeholder posing an operational query in a presentation session.

    Thanks much if you could advise.

    Reply
    • Hi Vijay, thanks for your feedback and question. I’ll add your situation to my list of topics to post in the future. My quick response to your question is –
      1. Be honest. The worst thing to do is to ‘make up’ a response and pretend you know the answer. The risk is, that someone in your audience will know and even be able to see in your body language and voice, that you don’t know what you are talking about. They will then either call your bluff, or start to suspect that other parts of your presentation were also ‘made up’. You need to preserve your credibility and integrity when presenting, and very few people will expect you to know everything.
      2. If it’s a question that you just need to buy a little time to think about what the best answer is, then you could use a strategy to defer your answer. There are at least a couple of ways you could do this. You could say something like “Great question, and before I answer that, you’ve just reminded me…” and you go on and talk about something else that is related but is not exactly the question being asked. Whilst you are talking about that, you can think about how you want to answer the actual question, and then importantly return to the question being asked. Another trick is to ask the audience. “Great question, before I respond, what do others think…”, and whilst you let the audience make comment, you think about what you are going to say. Sometimes the audience may even be able to give you ‘the right answer’! If the question is asked as an interruption to your presentation, you have the right to also ‘park it’. Something like “Great question, and I’ll answer that shortly…”, write it up on the whiteboard / flipchart, and continue with your presentation. Then at the end, after you’ve had a bit of time to think about the question, you will be better placed to answer the question.
      3. If buying time is not going to help (usually because you just don’t know the answer), then you could optionally ask the audience, and/or say something like “Great question. I’m going to have to look into that a bit more closely. Is it ok if I do so, and get back to you xxx”. Most of the time the person asking the question will be happy that you are going to make the effort to find out the answer and come back to them.

      There are more advanced techniques you could adopt as an experienced presenter, such as:
      – Starting out your response with the question they have asked but then answering a different question…e.g. Q: What is the cost of Option 2? A: The cost of Option 2 is… (and let’s say you don’t know what the cost is. You say something like “The cost of Option 2 hasn’t been fully quantified just yet because we don’t see this as being a viable solution, however when this is known, I’ll be able to share it with you”). When you repeat their question in your answer it sounds like you’ve answered the question, when you actually haven’t!
      – Answer the question with a question. e.g. Q: How will you be supporting my team through this change? A: Team support is a great point. May I ask, what kind of support do you think would work best? What you’re doing here is collecting some information about the answer that your audience wants to hear. You can then respond in way that let’s the person know that their idea/answer is being incorporated into the final outcome / decision.

      The way you handle the question depends on the situation you are in of course, but I hope the above list of ideas gives you some valuable advice. Thanks!

      Reply

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