Most presentations include a short question and answer session, which is a positive way to invite the interaction of your audience. During your introduction, inform the audience when they may ask questions. You may choose to accept questions throughout your presentation or at the end. Answering questions from the audience can help you to summarize the information, stress your main points, clarify any misunderstandings and reinforce your recommendations. More important, it can make you more likable, allow you to connect at an informal level with your audience, and enable you to maintain your leader/expert role.
Answering Different Types of Questions
Questions from the audience tend to fall into three categories: good questions, difficult questions, and unnecessary questions. Making a comment about the question before you begin the answer will give you some time to think.
From your point of view as a speaker, good questions enable you to reinforce and elaborate on your message to the audience. You could begin your response by saying, “That’s an excellent question.” Difficult questions are those which are confrontational. They are designed to embarrass you, challenge you, confuse you or discredit you. If you don’t know the answer, you might say, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information with me.” If you prefer not to answer, you could say, “I’m afraid I’m not in a position to comment on that.” Unnecessary or irrelevant questions are those which ask about information you have already given. Point this out by saying something like “I think I answered that earlier.”
Staying in Control
Your objective is to maintain as much control of the question-and-answer session as you did of the formal presentation. You are the one who decides how many people to call on. You are the one who chooses how much detail to provide in your response. You are also the one who signals when the question-and-answer session comes to an end.
Start by listening carefully to the question and nod to show that you understand and are paying attention. Be patient if the questioner asks you to clarify something that you have already explained at depth during your presentation. Even though you may feel you explained this point clearly, there may be some misunderstanding among audience members. Don’t roll your eyes or sigh in exasperation when you hear a question. These are insulting signals. Instead, after the questioner has finished speaking, say you’ll be happy to clarify the point. Otherwise, explain politely that you have already done so.
Always repeat the question. This has several benefits. First, it brings the attention of the audience back to you, rather than the person asking the question. Second, in a large room, the question may not have been heard by everyone. Your repeating it allows each person to know what you are going to talk about. Third, it gives you time to think of how to answer. Remember to stay on track and answer the specific question. If one person tries to ask several questions, explain that you could speak privately afterwards but for now, you’d like to give more people a chance to ask questions.
Maintaining Visual Control
- Adopt a comfortable position, where you can look at all sections of the audience.
- Use eye contact techniques.
- Use walking patterns to focus and refocus the attention of the audience.
Maintaining Verbal Control
- View the question and answer period as an opportunity to reinforce your major points.
- Restructure difficult questions so you can answer them to your advantage.
- Listen to the intent of the message, instead of the tone.
- Keep your answers brief so as not to appear to be defending yourself.
Remember that a speaker is judged from the moment he or she enters the room until the last question is answered, so be polite, helpful and professional in answering questions.