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.


• 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 https://www.ruthbonetti.com/books.html