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Public Speaking Worries – Handling Questions & Answers

One expectation frightens people preparing for a public presentation above all others. The fear is, “Even if I master the material someone will ask me a question and I will look stupid.” Here is everything you need to know about handling Q&A. Keep these tips in mind and you can check that fear off your list.

1. Questions are your Friends. When giving a presentation It is extremely important to know what your audience is thinking. If you aren’t getting any feedback from them while you are talking, you have no idea how the information is being received. Questions let you know if you are moving too fast or conversely too slowly. A question informs you if you are clearly expressing your ideas. Rather than avoiding questions, try seeking them.

2. Body Language. There are two actions you can take to encourage questions. The first is physical. Stand still and raise your hand (like you had to do in elementary school). Secondly ask, “What are you questions?” The appropriate verbiage is “what,” not “are there any” questions? The first implies you know the audience has questions and simply asks them to express them. The second calls in to doubt whether any questions exist.

3. Prime the Pump. It may surprise you to learn that people are hesitant to ask questions. The audience members do not want to appear “dumb” by asking an inappropriate question. You can help them get started by asking yourself a question and then answering it. You might say, “At this point I am often asked why…?” You then answer your own question. Next you say to the group, “Who has the next question?” This technique makes it easier for people in the audience to ask their questions.

4. I Don’t Know, But. When (not if) you are asked a question you don’t know the answer to, simply, honestly reply – “I don’t know.” This is always the correct response when asked for information you do not have. Remember that fear of looking stupid, I mentioned at the beginning of this article? The absolute best way to look stupid is to fake an answer. The important tag follows “I don’t know” and that is “But I will find out and give the information to you at (specific time).” At a press conference the President has to know the answer to every single question they are asked. He does not have the luxury you have of saying, “I don’t know.” You do have the ability and when expressed calmly you will appear articulate and professional.

5. Hostile Questions. Now that we’ve gotten this far I need to let you know sometimes people will try and make you look foolish with a question. The agenda in their question may not be readily apparent to you. When you sense hostility, here are two things you can do. First Do not respond in kind. When you are verbally attacked you must never retaliate. Since I mentioned elementary school in Tip 2, let’s go back to the playground at recess. When two boys got in a tussle, what did the rest of the children do? On the playgrounds of my childhood everybody would step back. Someone might yell, “Fight!” But only the teachers would step in to break it up. If during your presentation someone “attacks,” you must never allow it to seem like a fight. Do NOT drop the discussion to their level. Second Remain calm and Bridge. Take a deep breath. If you need time repeat the question. Acknowledge any truth in the question and immediately bridge to talk about something positive. Let me give you an example. I have a product and I’m making a sales presentation to a potential client. Someone asks, “Didn’t you lose the contract with XYZ company because of your pathetic customer service?” Ouch! Here is the correct response, “Yes we did lose XYZ as a result of customer service issues. (acknowledge truth) As a result of examining why, we learned our customer service reps did not have access to important technical information. (Bridge) We invested $$$ to upgrade our phone system and integrate informational databases. Last year we received the J.D. Powers award for Outstanding Customer Service.

By practicing these tips you will learn the value of questions from your audience. Your skill as a public speaker will grow, along with your confidence.

Rick Highsmith teaches the Fearless Presentations Public Speaking Class and helps participants eliminate public speaking fear. For information about upcoming public speaking seminars, visit www.fearlesspresentations.com.


Author: Doug Staneart, Date Published: February 4, 2011

Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.

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