How Do I Handle Questions Well When Doing Presentations?
A post from our Presentation Skills blog
Written by John Boddington
Ten years ago, while working for a company that provided training on how to build an IT career (such as becoming a programmer), the company arranged a series of presentations that I was to give at secondary schools. Depending on what the school felt was most beneficial, some of the talks were aimed at those with a few years of schooling to go, and what types of subject choices they should be making. Others were aimed at the students who were about to leave school and wanted to know what their options were. Yet others were to try and help young ladies realise that IT was not just for the boys.
I had done quite a bit of public speaking in my life, and that was why the company had chosen me to deliver these talks. The first couple went ahead as planned, but on about the third or fourth talk, one of the students butted in and started asking questions. What I only realised afterwards is that in all the public speaking that I had ever done, I had not really been in an environment when questions would get asked. With the schools, we had arranged that questions would then get asked at the end of the entire talk. So what was this young upstart doing?
It threw me, and I probably did not handle it too well, because instead of dealing with it properly, I answered it, and that just opened the floodgates and everybody was calling out. I knew that I had to plan to handle this better.
Afterwards, when having the opportunity to think about it and discuss it with others, it was obvious. The problem was that I had lost control. And that is the simple answer to dealing with questions – stay in control.
How to stay in control
You can stay in control in a number of ways. You might want to suggest to anybody that interrupts with a question that you will probably cover what people plan to ask about in the talk, so if they can wait, and if it is still not answered by the end, then you will gladly field questions. Or possibly at the end of a section, if not all the way at the end.
A second way to deal with a question is to answer it, but preface your answer by saying that you will answer this one question, but others will get dealt with at the end.
However you have dealt with things so far, you then get to the end of your talk, or the end of the section, and it is time to open the floor to questions. If you have not done this before, it can also be a daunting thing. How do you keep control? Do you treat everybody the same? You cannot really. Talking to school children would be different to talking to professional business people. If you are doing a sales presentation, you might not want to suggest to only 3 people in front of you to put their hands up first. They might not react well to that, and you then run the risk of losing the deal if people feel that you have not treated them like adults.
So what does this mean? It means that just as you have prepared what you want to say, and how you want to say it, you also have to prepare to answer questions. Think about who your audience is, and how best to invite questions. Could you break the questions down? For example, going to the schools I would then ask if anybody had questions about programming, then web designing etc, and move through things systematically. Once you have worked that out, then come up with the phrasing on how to invite questions. Come up with a system that suits you.
When doing the school presentations, if it was in a hall in front of many students, I used to work from left to right, and front to back. It seemed the most systematic to me, and helped me control the situation. To people towards the back right, they could slowly see the way that it was going, and then did not have to keep their hands up, they usually started lowering them until I started to get near to them again.
It took me a couple of presentations to fully develop ways to stay in control, but once I had, I never had problems with any of the school children again.
When doing sales presentations later in my work career, it was usually to a much smaller group, if I then did open up to questions, I did so but usually looked in the direction of the most senior person, giving them my full attention. That also then helped any of their subordinates to see that I was deferring to him or her, and they often did likewise, allowing that person to ask first. If the senior person did not have questions, the subordinates then often would ask if they had any.
A crucial reason that you want to stay in control is that you might have some sort of commitment that you want to gain from your audience. At the schools presentations, we often wanted to get people to come forward after the talk to leave details if they wanted any follow-up or course material to be sent to them. While working on cruise ships, I used to do a presentation on great snorkelling spots on each island in the Caribbean. We then asked for people to sign up straight away and rent the equipment. If you had lost control, and people had started to leave, you had just lost your potential to generate revenue. Staying in control of your Q & A session means that you retain everybody's attention, right till your final conclusion. Why lose your audience right at the end?
So if you want to avoid coming unstuck and losing control when opening up to questions at a presentation, come up with a plan. That is the best way to stay in control, and that is how best to handle a question and answer session.
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