You work all night on your presentation, create some cool PowerPoint slides, and then nail the delivery on the day.
Your speech flows sweetly, the audience is hooked on every word, and it’s all going better than you imagined it possibly could. And then you spot him; that annoying contrarian guy with the loud voice; the one who prides himself on always taking the opposite point of view to everyone else. He is raising his hand to ask a question you know is going to be difficult. What do you do?
Questions. Questions. Let’s talk about how to deal with questions. Standing up to speak in front of an audience is hard enough in its own right. But questions make the job doubly hard. You have no control over what is asked, the question is often based on a false premise, and yet it feels like everyone expects you to have the perfect answer.
How on earth do you deal with that?
It’s no wonder that handling questions often feels tougher than the actual speaking part.
But imagine if you knew how to deal with questions confidently, without getting flustered, and in a way that enhances your reputation, even when you don’t really know the answer.
“Impossible. No way, Kola!” I hear you say.
“Way!”, I tell ya. “Way!”
But to achieve this seemingly impossible feat, you first have to reframe your belief about your objective when dealing with questions.
Here it is: Your true worry when it comes to how to deal with questions is NOT that you won’t know the answer! It really isn’t.
“What! Yes, it is, Kola. That’s exactly what I’m worried about!”
“No, it really isn’t”
“Yes, it really is.
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is “
OK. This could go on forever, so just suspend your disbelief and hear me out.
What you are really worried about is looking like an impostor. It’s people coming away thinking that you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is known as The Impostor Syndrome.
We all have it. The fear of being found out. The worry that today will be the day they finally realise that you’re not the expert you project yourself as being.
When you understand that how well you answer the question itself is much less important than how effectively you can project yourself as an authority. This will change the way you approach how to deal with questions and Q&As.
You are not an impostor! You know your stuff!
Even if you don’t know everything, you know more than most other people in the room.
Even if there are some in the room that actually know more about the subject than you, you know enough to be able to handle their questions.
There is no one objective standard by which you will be judged. No one is standing watching your performance with a tick chart to give you a pass or fail. No one is going to sentence you to 10 years hard labour if you don’t know every answer. All your audience will decide in their minds is whether you seemed like you knew what you were talking about, of whether you didn’t. No one question or answer matters. It’s about the overall impression you create.
So, quit worrying about being found out. You won’t be…especially if you follow these Five Golden Principles on how to deal with questions like a rockstar.
(If you need to improve your communication skills, my workshop might help: 5 Communication SuperSkills that will change your career if you use them (and stall your career if you don’t)
And please share this article with someone you know that needs to improve their Q&As.
PRINCIPLE #1: KNOW YOUR STUFF
OK, I know I said you don’t have to know everything, but you do still need to know your stuff. There is no substitution for this.
If you do have the time to prepare, then prepare you should. Do your research. Study your subject. Try to make sure you actually are the most knowledgeable person about your subject in the room. It will mean that when the questions come, you have a big reservoir of knowledge to draw on and this will give you a sense of authority during the Q&A.
Knowing your stuff isn’t the same as knowing everything. It’s about knowing enough to be able to talk confidently in front of people.
PRINCIPLE #2: PREDICT THE QUESTIONS
This is such an obvious one but very often speakers forget to do it.
Try to predict the questions and work out what answers you will give if they come up.
As a young barrister starting out, we had to learn about cross-examination, which is the single most difficult skill every barrister has to master. What we learnt was that the most important element, above charisma, voice projection and cleverness, was making sure you never asked a question to which you don’t already know the answer. When you first start learning the skill, this seems impossible, but then you realise that with careful preparation and analysis, it actually is possible to predict with nearly 100% accuracy what a witness is going to say before they actually say it.
That’s why you should always be careful what you say to lawyers. We are a crafty bunch!
Ask yourself: “What are the most likely questions that people could ask?” Ideally, work out your Top Ten. Don’t be easy on yourself with only softball questions. Think about the hard ones too.
Write them down. Then work out your answers. Chances are that every question that comes up, will be one of the ones you had already predicted. Feel free to ham it up and pretend like that is the first time you’ve had to think about that question; and then give your brilliant answer.
Simples! (but highly effective).
PRINCIPLE #3: PRIME YOUR AUDIENCE BEFOREHAND
Before you even get up to speak, you should prime your audience.
If it is possible, mingle with your audience beforehand. Discuss some of the elements of your talk to start framing their opinions. If you know some individuals within your audience well, you can even plant some questions and tell them you may call on them during the Q&A.
This is a great option on two fronts.
i) Firstly, you are engaging with your audience and getting them on side
ii) Secondly, it helps you avoid the one thing that’s worse than hard questions, which is no questions at all. There’s nothing worse than opening the floor for questions and hearing nothing but crickets and tumbleweed.
PRINCIPLE #4: SET THE GROUND RULES
You’re the speaker, so you’re the boss!
You get to control the format of the Q&A. Do you want people to wait until the end, or will you allow questions all the way through? You decide.
You should also set the rules on the manner of questions. Ask people to keep their questions short so that more people can get to ask theirs. You can also remind them to only ask questions rather than making statements.
Setting the ground rules before the questioning begins, is all about creating the right environment to stack the deck in your favour.
PRINCIPLE #5: UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF QUESTIONERS
There are basically 4 different categories of questioners and each of them are best dealt with in different ways.
1) The Genuine Questioner: this person has a genuine question and actually want to know the answer. Dealing with them is a pleasure because they typically ask questions well within the range of questions you can predict. They exist to make you look good so treat them nicely.
How to deal with questions from the Genuine Questioner: Tackle their questions head-on. They are genuinely interested in what you have to say. If you know the answer they will be grateful. If you don’t they won’t be judgmental.
2) The Show Off: this person isn’t interested in you or your answer. In fact, they don’t even care about the question they asked. Their (not so secret) aim is to show how clever they are. The question they ask is designed to do only one thing. Show off their own knowledge.
The good thing about questions from the Show Off is that everyone in the audience knows what they’re doing. Your answer to the question isn’t anywhere nearly as important as the way you actually handle the situation.
How to deal with questions from the Show Off: Fundamentally, the show-off is harmless. They aren’t attacking you or trying to show you up. They just need a little limelight. Treat their question with respect and respond to their question as best you can. You can even ask for their own opinion. They will happily oblige and be grateful to you for the opportunity. When they sit down, they’ll think you were great and everyone else will see you as generous for dealing with a show-off so magnanimously.
3) The Passive-Aggressive – this is the most dangerous questioner of all. Their manner is outwardly friendly but inwardly deadly. The question seems innocuous but the subconscious motive is to show you up.
How to deal with questions from the passive-aggressive: This is all about not taking the bait. However hard it feels, don’t rise to it. Don’t take the bait. Keep your ego in check.
If you attack the questioner, they will do what passive-aggressives do when attacked: play the ‘why are you so upset?’ card. Then they’ll continue their attack from the higher moral ground and some will fall for it.
Don’t let it go there. You already have all the power as the speaker, you don’t need to prove it in every instance. Stake your claim to the higher ground and ignore the subtle attack.
Treat the question as a genuine one even though you know it’s actually an attack. Give your answer with total courtesy. You’ll diffuse the attack by not reacting to it. Everyone will respect your restraint and give you even greater credit, whether you are able to really answer the question or not.
It’s the subtle art of fighting without fighting.
4) The Hostile Questioner – This Questioner is prepared to make a brazen and open attack. They might challenge any part of your message or just attack you personally. Either way, it is open warfare and an attempt to bully.
In this situation, there really is only one way to deal with a bully. Stand up to them. Stand firm. Shut them down and deny them the satisfaction. Everyone recognises that their intent and impact are negative, and no one wants you to give in to it.
Fortunately, you have the floor, which is the ultimate weapon.
Of course, if you actually know the answer to the question, then answer it authoritatively to put the questioner in his or her place.
Otherwise, you can decline to answer the question and invite them to speak to you afterwards. You can make your answer super short and simply move on to another person.
Very often, because their intent is focused on attacking you, they will not have thought about defence. The premise of their question may be completely flawed, in which case you can go on the offensive and attack that premise. It’s fair game.
The key is not to allow the Hostile to dominate the Q&A and also to move onto someone else as quickly as possible.
Here’s that workshop link again – https://www.greatspeech.co/workshop/
SOME USEFUL DOS & DON’TS
Buy time when you need to: Repeat the question to give yourself time to think.
Reframe the question: Paraphrase the question but frame it in a way that fits with the answer you want to give. It’s a bit of a politician’s trick so use it only as a last resort, but it’s a way of being able to speak confidently even though you didn’t necessarily know the answer to the original question.
Don’t be condescending: Even if it is a great question, don’t say ‘great question’. It sounds hollow and you can achieve the same or a better impact with alternatives like “I hadn’t thought about it from that point of view” or “that’s actually a timely questions because…”
Explore the issue: If you don’t have the answer, just talk about it with the questioner. Explore the issue openly and complement the questioner for having raised an interesting topic.
Body language: Step forward towards your audience when you answer. It subtly signals that you are direct and with them. And so, make sure you don’t unwittingly step or lean back when asked a question. That signals the opposite.
Don’t lie: If you don’t know, don’t lie, just be honest about that. Everyone can spot a flounderer. You’re best bet is to be honest and take the hit.
Questions can be a challenge but they don’t need to be a problem.
Follow the 5 Golden Principles on how to deal with questions, and your reputation will only grow stronger. Although that probably means you’ll be asked even more questions, so use it wisely.
p.s. when you are ready to start working on your communication skills, be sure to check out my Communication SuperSkills workshop
p.p.s. you may also like to read 17 Public Speaking Mistakes guaranteed to putt your audience in a coma