What to do when you get a difficult question from the audience and you don't know the answer? And how do you respond if the question is beside the point? Or not clear at all? Of course, as a speaker you don't want to be surprised - or worse - embarrassed by a thorny question.
Giving a presentation can be quite stressful in itself. But answering (difficult) questions from the audience is even trickier.
Here are a few tips to survive the question round.
1. Prepare for difficult questions
The best way to deal with difficult or unexpected questions is to be well prepared. Before you begin your presentation, think about what questions might come up and what the best answer would be. Of course, you can't anticipate everything, but you can estimate and prepare the most difficult questions. Think of it as a kind of FAQ that you draw up in advance.
2. Stay calm
Don't let annoying questions get you down. Sometimes questions can be very confrontational or throw you off completely. In that case it is important that you remain calm and composed and keep the situation under control. Remember: you don't have to answer a question immediately. Pause for a few seconds and think calmly about the best way to answer. You can also save time by repeating or rephrasing the question in front of the entire audience. Then try to summarize the question and convert it to neutral language to eliminate any hostility or emotion.
3. Respond briefly and to the point
Some questioners make it a sport to ask long, unclear or complicated questions. Try to keep your answer as compact as possible so that you can keep control of the situation. Instead of then answering the whole question and risking going into too much detail, you can address part of it. Briefly answering part of the question may be enough to satisfy them. And you can check that this way: "Does this answer your question sufficiently?".
4. Bounce the ball back
When someone asks a difficult, complicated or tricky question, to which you cannot give a clear answer, it is best to ask this person a question in return. Ask, for example, "Can you clarify what you mean by that?" or "Can you repeat the question?"
5. Be honest if you don't know the answer
It's absolutely no disaster if you don't have a definite answer to every question. After all, you're not a walking Wikipedia. Making up an incorrect answer or trying to skirt around the question can cause you to lose credibility with your audience. Instead, tell them what you do know, or admit that you don't have the answer and that you will get back to them as soon as possible. Here are a few examples of what you might say then:
- I don't have the data at hand (at the moment). I'll be happy to look it up for you after the presentation.
- This is beyond the scope of this presentation, but it is certainly an interesting point.
- That is a fascinating question. My colleague X is an expert on this subject. I'll just ask him. Perhaps he knows the answer.
6. Maintain control
At a certain point you want to wrap up the question time. You can do this by saying "One last question to finish" or "We have time for one more question" and then give the last questioner the floor. This way you keep the reins in your hands and avoid asking questions that get out of hand.
Sometimes questions are too difficult to answer. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know something or haven't considered an alternative approach. An enthusiastic "That's an interesting idea, I hadn't thought of that" is much more positive than a muttered "I don't know." Remember that a presentation is a two-way process and it is important to show that you are also learning from your audience.