Some speakers absolutely dread taking questions after they have presented a talk. Although you can carefully script your presentation, you never know what questions will come up when you open it up to questions from the audience.
Will someone ask something you don’t know? Will there be questions you don’t even understand? Or, perhaps worst of all, will no one ask a question at all?
Here are some of the things that can go wrong—and how to handle them and come off looking good.
There is a deathly silence after you ask, “Are there any questions?”
Instead of asking if there are any questions ask, “Who wants to ask the first question?” If no one pipes up after a few seconds, ask, “So who wants to ask the second question?” That will probably get a chuckle (or at least a smile) and will loosen up the crowd a bit.
You can also plan for this beforehand. Ask a friend in the audience to ask a question if no one else does. Once the ice is broken, others will be willing to speak up. If you are really desperate, ask a question yourself. Say something like, “One of the questions I hear a lot is…” then give the question and answer it.
Someone asks a question that is specific to them, and not of interest to the rest of the group.
These questions are usually the type that go on forever, as the person wants to give you every detail of their personal situation. A good way to handle this is to find a place to gently interrupt and say, “I’m not sure I can answer your question properly in this public forum. Can you speak with me after we are finished here, so I can answer your question appropriately?”
You can not understand the question.
Whether the problem is that the audience member’s speech is difficult to understand (perhaps they speak with a heavy accent) or the question doesn’t make sense, one way to deal with this is to ask others in the audience to repeat the question to you.
Never blame the questioner: “I can’t understand a thing you are saying.” Instead say, “I’m sorry but I am having trouble hearing the question. Could someone help me out?” If you are in a group where the people know each other, they may be better able to understand the questioner and can tell you what was asked.
You do not know the answer to a question that was asked.
First of all, no one knows everything, not even you. Be willing to admit when you do not know an answer. If appropriate, offer to find the answer and get back to them. Then do so. Never bluff and pretend you know the answer when you don’t. Someone in the audience will know the answer, and you will lose credibility. And that reminds me of another way to deal with this. Say something such as, “I am not familiar with that. Does anyone else here know that answer to Mary’s question?”
You do not have a good way to close at the end of the question and answer session.
You may have given a dynamic speech and dazzled them with your ability to answer every question they threw at you, but if you close with, “Uh, well, if those are all the questions, I guess we’re done…” well, you’ve lost them at the very end.
Have a few sentences prepared that you will deliver at the end of the Q&A to close on a high note. Summarize your top points, remind them of any action steps, and thank them for coming to hear you speak. That is their cue to applaud wildly.
Question and answer sessions do not have to be frightening. Remember that the audience wants you to do well. Give them your best and respond to their questions in a genuine way, and they will become your fans.