Tips to handle questions

Even experienced presenters can struggle with a question from left field. And alienate listeners if they stonewall or become defensive.

“Are there any questions?”

Part of your speech preparation is to jot down potential queries and practise appropriate answers.

What if no one asks?speakoutmedium

People may be shy of speaking or not ready to verbalise. Listeners use a different part of the brain when absorbing content.

• Give time; “While I drink a glass of water, think if you have any questions to ask me.” That water will also help you to think fast if someone lobs a curly one! in which case draw on the POWER OF THE PAUSE. Reflect.

• Clear the fog with: “Often I’m asked …”

• Plant a colleague in the hall, primed with a question you know inside out. This breaks ice and triggers other questions.

• Loosen them up with “Turn to the person next to you and discuss…”

Handling Tricky Questions 

If you can’t answer, it’s better to admit it openly than to tangle yourself up in convoluted attempts. People appreciate honesty: “I don’t think I could do justice to that without research. Let’s follow up later.”

Or “I’m not prepared to answer that at present; could someone else enlarge on it?”

Remember, you are the expert. Most couldn’t match your command of the topic.

Handling hostility

Dodge inelegant public power-struggles which will alienate the rest of the audience.

• Drop your shoulders, take a deep breath and a drink of water.
• Listen carefully to their points, looking to agree on some common ground.
• Empathy helps to defuse possible aggression and maintains rapport with listeners.
• Remain objective.
• Maintain a neutral, even voice. Curb emotive language.
• See it as an opportunity to re-state your position: “Let me clarify my point.”
• Find a source of agreement: “I understand that you do agree with me on …”
• Deal with a threatening point briefly and call for the next question.

Manage Grandstanders and Big-Noters

An “on-edge” presenter may mis-read an enthusiastic question as an effort to trip. Most wheelbarrow pushers will desist once they have their quota of attention. If they try to turn it into a debate, suggest following up the discussion later rather than take time from others’ questions.

Phrases like “Perhaps you might briefly share your expertise with us …” defer to their knowledge while giving yourself time to marshal your own thoughts.

[Excerpt from Speak Out – Don't Freak Out; Public speaking with confidence
available as hardcopy book and eBook] 

Need help with coaching and speech/blog writing? Email Ruth

To Comment or ‘No Comment’

How to dodge bullet questions without those lethal words ‘No comment’? In tough Media interviews or post-presentation Q and A, how to avoid without sounding evasive or flaky? How to present the company position without being trapped into corners?

We tackled this hot topic in my recent Media Skills training. (I enjoyed working with these Rural Financial Counsellors, who assist those in tough situations.)

A picture tells 1000 words

People groan ‘not another PowerPoint!’ Enliven with (relevant) pictures. So at midnight before that day’s training I’m adding family photos of outback Australia to my slides.

Next day I’ll dress up to detract from bleary eyes – pearls will help.

Give reasons. I can’t comment because: 

  • ‘As this is not my portfolio I would refer you instead to Joe Bloggs.’
  • ‘I’m not familiar with that research so will leave it to those who are.’
  • ‘This matter is under investigation’ or ‘For legal reasons…’
  • ‘It is a complex situation and warrants XYZ…’
  • ‘I agree in part but won’t respond to hypotheticals. If you’re asking about QRS I can say…’
  • ‘My brief evaluation is LMN but others are better qualified to respond.’
  • ‘Your premise has some validity but STU…’
  • ‘I don’t yet have the full picture so will reserve judgment until then.’

Sincere thanks for the training program you conducted with my team. It put forward some views that people seldom consider. At an important meeting since then, they were well prepared, relaxed, and gave so much practical information that the meeting was extended.’
Shirley McNaughton, Executive Officer
Rural Financial Counselling Service NSW – Northern Region

How it’s done

British PM Cameron dodged a press conference question about the US-China deal to reduce carbon emissions. He wanted to see ‘more detail’ before making a judgment.

On the global stage

The G20 Brisbane heat abated after a week of celebrity and jet spotting. (Why don’t dignitaries plane pool to help save the planet? Were President Obama’s ex-forum comments appropriate?)

Constructive face-to-face meetings warmed friendships–often through non-verbal cues of body language and voice tone as much as words. Photo and metaphor beamed powerful messages around the world.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s vow to shirtfront Vladimir Putin brought a memorable concept to international diplomacy. It sent media into frenzies of:

Will he-won’t he-did he-don’t he?

(Spellcheck, you don’t get the impact of rhyme and rhythm.)

Top leaders joined Team Abbott to kick that ball after an inappropriate media skit. Which could lessen sympathy for ABC cuts of rural and regional programs, that deny voice to battlers in the ‘outback’.

Bear Diplomacy won friends

  • Vladimir Putin smiled while cuddling a koala, pronounced his hosts efficient and friendly but fled the heat.
  • Indian Prime Minister Modi gave Tony Abbott enthusiastic bear hugs.
  • Angela Merkel enjoyed our beer with locals.

Communication challenges

Merkel is tech savvy. ‘You can’t use two at once’ she advised when a microphone and live translation earpiece set up banshee wailing.

International conferences challenge communication even when the major language is English – my salvation when presenting in Finland.

Build your presentation confidence with training or coaching.

Skills to speak/write short

Have you found that it’s easier to speak or write SHORT than LONG? Speakers must be tight with timing to not disadvantage the next presenters. So we edit, prune, prepare, practise. But try 5 minutes! 

When chosen to pitch a manuscript at Byron Bay Writers Festival I determined to give it my all.  And a picture tells 1000 words, right? My PowerPoint presentation shone with photographs and evocative music. I bought my own data projector to avoid tech meltdown, enlisted a techie to help me craft a streamlined presentation. 

Heed advice from experts

At a workshop a few days before, Stephanie, Jill and Lisa critiqued us and gave invaluable advice; it was challenging, honest and brutal where needed. They looked askance when I arrived lugging tech gear and props.

  • No PowerPoint. What if there’s a glitch, you might waste half your precious five minutes. ‘Couldn’t I cut back the slides to just a few?’ (Whimpers) ‘Please?’
  • No, because attention is divided between your face and the screen. Just speak.(Tactful but firm). Hmm, good point.

Learning to let go


They were right. This, my first pitch, was an exercise in letting go, in listening, in faith. I’d be foolish to ignore astute, sound, expert advice, so booked a coaching session with Stephanie. She tolerated my minimalist PowerPoint version, then reached for my laptop. Cut, cut, cut, paste. (‘Can’t I keep that story?’) Cut, add, paste, cut. A tight but flowing version emerged. My style had become staccato in its efforts to save valuable seconds: I had opted for two-syllable words as opposed to four. Her priority was clarity. She brought my pitch to five minutes exact. 

On the day 

I spoke first of five strong contenders. Slow deep breathing beforehand. As I do. Added a few ad libs. So the bell caught me off guard. (With PowerPoint, I note the number of the last slide so I can skip content if necessary.) I’d indicated the usual four-minute mark on my text, but forgot my own advice: 

• ‘Tab sections/sentences that can be dropped if time runs short.’ 

My revised pitch gave freedom to express through verbal, facial and body language. Though not the winner, I emerged positive, wiser and grateful. I value the opportunity to be heard, and to learn in the process. 

Nothing is wasted

I’ve since filmed it into a book trailer that’s up on YouTube. My next presentation for my book-in-progress Burn My Letters allows 30 minutes – ample scope for slides!
It will be at the Institute for Migration in Finland in May.

Prepare to shine

Prepare – get feedback – revise – get coaching – prepare, prepare, prepare. 

I’m available for one-on-one coaching – or I recommend Stephanie!

P.S. Three of my books are available on Amazon kindle including Speak Out.

Do SHAKES rattle your presentation?

What is your deepest, murkiest fear as that presentation, competition or recital looms? Shakes? You’re not alone!

Many performers, whether they present through words or music, have been disconcerted by jitters at some stage. String players dread wobbly bow strokes; vocalists that unintended vocal vibrato. Shaky hands or lips inhibit many instrumentalists. Pity the trumpeters, whose fingers are all too obvious right under their noses! At least public speakers can hide their hands in pockets (NOT a good look, however) or grip the lectern (only minimally better).

It’s all part of the fight/flight adrenalin rush

We cannot rabbit off stage. Avoidance is counter-productive.  Authors may be solitary types, happiest with a pen and paper or a keyboard, but they must face audiences and media on the promo tours.

We need tactics to counter jitters.

SHAKES seem obvious to the performer – small comfort that most listeners are oblivious.

Our society tends to silence problems with pills rather than find a solution.

“Beta-blocker” drugs block the adrenalin reaction and anxiety symptoms by slowing the heart rate to reduce sweating and tremors: they do not stop nerves, but lessen symptoms. Medical prescription is essential as they can be dangerous for people prone to diabetes, certain heart conditions, bronchitis, depression, hay fever and asthma.

Test suitability well before a performance – rather than discover an unsuspected cardiac or asthma condition onstage. Reported side effects include dizziness, light-headedness, nightmares, hallucinations, lethargy, insomnia, visual disturbances, diarrhoea, drowsiness, cold hands and feet.

Surely there are practical, doable and non threatening solutions? Well, I’m glad you asked…

Channel Adrenaline

Diffuse excess adrenaline with Brain Gym’s “Positive Points” technique. Place a hand on your forehead, inhaling deeply. This simple action encourages blood flow to the frontal lobes where rational thought occurs. It curbs fight or flight jitters, releases memory blocks and enables you to walk onto the platform accessing your whole brain. If memory slips intrude mid-performance, simply pause between movements, breathe deeply with a hand to your forehead and regain focus. Also, holding these emotional stress-release neurovascular balance points of the stomach meridian curbs stomach queasiness.

Try the contrary approach

The more we try to control shaking, the worse it gets. Instead, try the paradoxical approach. Rather than fight against shaking, allow yourself to do so. Give yourself permission to shake. “So, you want to shake, fingers. Well, go on – shake.” Some performers consciously make their hands tremble, their knees shake or their palms sweat as a way of trying to produce the symptom rather than conceal it.

Wiggle your toes

Focus your attention elsewhere. On your toes, as did John, a talented organist and clarinetist I coached in an American summer music program. He admitted to suffering every symptom possible when performing. Soon after his session, he performed creditably. I congratulated him on his poise and calm; if he experienced any jitters they  were not obvious. “Oh,” he said, “my hands shook in the beginning, then I remembered what you said and focused on my toes. When they started to shake I brought my attention back onto my hands, and by then the piece was over.”

Work those fingers

Jittery fingers may be a product of tense muscles or of too much energy as a result of the adrenaline rush. Before going on-stage, shake or rub your hands together. Squeeze your fingers into a tight fist, then release.

Move thoughts elsewhere

Another solution is to direct thoughts onto another aspect of your performance. Our minds just cannot think of two things at once.

Choose to focus not on your weaknesses, but on your strengths. 

 

Handle questions with poise

Question time; “What will they ask me?”

It’s the fear of the unknown, right? Speakers may flinch at the thought of answering Q & A – especially if they’ve seen experienced presenters handle this aspect with loss of poise. You will not have this worry if your speech preparation included noting potential queries and practice of appropriate answers. Here are some more tips from my book Don’t Freak Out – Speak Out.

“Are there any questions?”

These words often are met with bald silence. This does not imply failure. If your presentation was so concise and clear that no clarification is needed, or the audience needs a break after a long presentation, don’t extract unwilling questions. Many people may be shy of speaking out and prodding is counterproductive.

Ice breakers

Perhaps you might plant a colleague in the audience, primed with a preferred question which you can answer with ease. This breaks that uneasy ice and triggers other questions.

You could clear the fog with: “Often I’m asked …”

Listeners use a different part of the brain when absorbing content, so they may be not yet ready to verbalise.

A less threatening prompt is to ask them to “Turn to the person next to you and discuss …” Or you might casually say, “While I drink a glass of water, think if you have any questions to ask me.” That water will also help you to think fast if any curly questions are lobbed from left field! In which case, pause. Reflect. (Perhaps during that moment, ask if a member of the audience may answer the question for you.)

Repeat the question

… not only for the people at the back of the hall – who will appreciate your consideration – but also for the tape if you have agreed to a recording. Rephrase and simplify any convoluted or stumbling questions.

Remember, you’re the expert

You were invited to speak because of acknowledged qualification or experience. You are prepared, up to date on the research. Most of the audience could not match your command of the topic. Although some questions may be tricky, delivered from grandstands or pushed in wheelbarrows, it is rare that they are actually as hostile as they might first seem. An “on-edge” presenter may mis-read an enthusiastic question as an effort to trip him or her.

Compliment useful or stimulating queries to reinforce important points from your presentation: “That’s an excellent question, I’m glad you raised it.” (But don’t enthuse over all questions or you may appear fawning.) Phrases like “As you no doubt know …” “Perhaps you might briefly share your expertise with us …” defer to their knowledge while giving yourself time to marshal your own thoughts.

The floor is yours.

You own the space.

You are the expert.

If you can’t answer

• It’s better to admit it openly than to tangle yourself up in convoluted attempts.

• People appreciate the honesty of “I don’t think I could do justice to that complicated question without further time or research, but I would be happy to follow it up with you later.” Or “I’m not prepared to answer that at present; would someone else like to enlarge on it?”

Perhaps you might feel challenged of neglecting certain sources or accused of omitting important points. Check that you understand each other before hackles rise. They may be working on similar research. Look for areas on which you can agree.

Counter hostile questions

• Drop your shoulders, take a deep breath and a drink of water.

• Listen carefully, look to agree on some common ground.

• Empathy helps to defuse possible aggression and maintains rapport with the rest of the audience.

• Remain objective and realise the person may be envious of your position on the podium. Understanding their position enables you to respond with compassion.

• Maintain a neutral, even voice and avoid emotive language. Look on this as an excellent opportunity to re-state your position: “Let me clarify my point.” Find a source of agreement: “I understand that you do agree with me on …” Or cut it short with “I value your question but I don’t think it’s applicable to today’s topic. I’m happy to discuss it further if you come and see me later.”

Deal with their point briefly and then call for the next question. Dodge inelegant public power-struggles which will alienate the rest of the audience, who are otherwise on your side.

Most grandstanders will desist once they have their quota of attention. If they try to turn it into a debate, suggest following up the discussion at the end of the session rather than take time from others’ questions.

 Don’t…

• Attack those who ask questions, accuse them or call them names

• Dodge answering – it looks shifty

• Fudge answers; audiences can see through this

Keep an eye on the time so your audience does not become restive. Give a brief wrap-up, restate your conclusion and thank them for their interest.

Be prepared, concise and clear. Don’t freak out; speak out!

Ruth’s book is available at http://www.ruthbonetti.com/books.html