I had a question from one of the participants, Thomas, last week in the IESE Persuasive Communications Seminar in Barcelona.

He asked “If you are caught off guard with a question – how do you react, or how do you turn around a question without answering?”

Don’t do the Rabbit

Parliament and young people: Lord Puttnam’s lecture
credit: UK Parliament

If people are seeing you for the first time, then how you react is fairly critical to their judgement of you.

The “Rabbit-in-the-Headlights” look, wide-eyed surprise caught in the glare of audience attention, is never a good look.  The look of surprise is read by others as that you must be hiding something, or you are not entirely sure of what you are speaking about.

You don’t have to answer every single question, your own agenda is important too.  You can set expectations early on about whether you will take questions during the presentation, or whether you will set aside specific times to handle questions (after each section, at the end).

5 steps to handle Questions:

  1. Listen.  Demonstrate that you are listening with eye contact, nodding your head. Treat each person with respect.
  2. Thank the person for the question.  It is a risk to raise your hand and ask a question.
  3. Repeat in your own words what you believe you have been asked.  Sometimes not everybody in the audience has heard the speaker. It also gives 2 advantages
    1. Clarifies that you have understood.
    2. Gives some time to reflect before answering.
  4. Pause.  Do not rush in.  
  5. Answer. Decide how you want to handle the question:
    1. Send it back to the audience “Great question.  What good ideas do you have?”
    2. Defer it to later “Important point.  I have some material that I can show you later that will help clarify that area.”
    3. Answer it. 

Remain the owner of your presentation
On finishing up the Question and Answer session – always return to your own agenda and repeat the key messages and close of your speech.  Do not let the last question from the audience define the last words that the audience hears you speak.

How to respond depends on the context – journalists with TV cameras, your own team, group of friends, in a courtroom with a judge and jury, presenting to your board, presenting to large group of employees, speaking to your boss, your wife after you arrive home later than planned, speaking to a group of senior people who haven’t met you before and are seeing you for the first time…
How to respond depends on who is asking the question – a competitor for a promotion, a good friend who you know wishes the best for you, a boss who asks lots of reflective questions, a boss who is very critical of those who don’t measure up to “perfect”.

Further Reading
Some useful question-handling resources from great public speaking bloggers:

What do you think?  Have you ever really messed up when dealing with a question?  Have you seen a teacher with a really good style for handling questions?  
Have a great weekend.

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