Delivering a prepared presentation is different from answering questions ‘off the cuff’. However, if you are giving a speech, particularly one in business, then the ability to answer questions – effectively and confidently – is a skill that you’ll need.
Paul Carroll, Toastmasters International has a few tips to help you develop the skills you’ll need:
1) Pause before you reply
Pausing gives you the opportunity to take a deep breath. The quickest and easiest on-the spot way to deal with your nerves is a deep breath. Remember, you’re pausing to consider your reply, as a thoughtful professional does! And of course, pausing gives you an opportunity to think about your answer’s structure.
2) Understand the question
Make sure you understand the question. Listen carefully and even ask the questioner to repeat or clarify it. Most questions will be requests for information you didn’t give in your presentation or requests for clarification, especially about costs, deadline and responsibility. If you can’t answer because you don’t have the specific information to hand you can say “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Do so!
3) Dealing with tricky questions
If the question takes the form of a statement, you’re free to say “Thanks for that contribution” and ask for questions from elsewhere in the audience.
If someone asks a multiple question, you can choose which part or parts to address. You can then say that if there’s time you’ll come back to the other questions. If you don’t want to answer one of them you are then in control of whether there’s time at the end.
4) Stay in control
As a professional you must maintain a certain amount of authority. If you lose that, your message is lost – so don’t react emotionally to an emotionally charged question.
You can slightly rephrase the question to the form you’re more comfortable answering. “The REAL question here is…”
To be on the safe side, you can ask for written questions. You can have a small form or even index cards on seats and have a colleague collect and categorize them for you during the presentation.
5) Questions you can’t answer
If it’s a question you can’t answer, consider why you can’t answer it. Is it outside your field or the remit of the talk? In which case – simply say so.
If necessary say; “I’ll get back to you on that.” And make sure you do so.
Never make something up. That’s a hostage to fortune which will not pay off.
6) Prepare a structure
Developing a set of ‘answer structures’ can really help. For example:
PREP: Point, Reason, Example Point.
Timeline: The situation in the past, what we do now, where we go from here.
Problem-Solution: Here’s what went wrong, here’s what we did about it.
Pros & Cons: Which one outweighs the other?
Procedure: Describe the stages of a process.
You’ll see that some of these structures overlap but they won’t all fit all questions, so before answering think about which structure fits the question just asked.
Practice with a colleague or friend, or at a Toastmasters club – these are low-risk situations where there are no consequences for a bad answer.
What are the frequently asked questions (FAQs) in your industry? What are the FAQs of your particular job? What are the FAQs for whatever you’re working on right now? And yes, keep a running tally. This is not a quick fix. This is a tip sheet for being prepared over time.
Empathise with your audience, especially if you’re delivering the kind of presentation which is likely to elicit hostile questions (e.g., delivering bad news). Put yourself on the other end of your message and think how you’d respond and what questions you’d want answered.
By following the eight tips above you can develop the skills to handle even the most tricky questions with confidence, ease and, perhaps, a dash of panache!