Strategies for difficult questions

Hello everybody. I’m Victoria Rennoldson, Communication and Culture Coach, and welcome to Wednesday Words with me. You can choose to watch this by clicking ‘play’ on the video above, which also has subtitles.

Or, because I know that many of you, just like me, like to listen to podcasts when you’re out and about, you can listen to the audio only version, by clicking below:

Finally, you can also read the blog as well, right here below.

Today we’ll be talking about how to deal with challenging questions during presentations.

Imagine the situation: you’re doing a presentation and you are well prepared, it’s been going fantastically well so far, and then it comes…

That question you weren’t expecting, the one you haven’t prepared for, perhaps it’s even a question that you’re not sure you understand exactly what the person is asking you.

It’s a difficult situation, right? You want to reply in a way which is professional, and yet if you don’t have the answer, or even understand it, this can be a little bit challenging. I want to share today my strategies to use in this situation so you can handle this situation and move the conversation on.

First of all, there are two things to bear in mind:

If you’re like most people, then you’ve prepared very well for this presentation, and you’re probably an expert on the topic that you’re talking about. Remember that you’re coming from a place of knowledge, competence, and expertise.

The other thing to remember as well is that usually in these situations, the person asking the question isn’t doing it to be hostile, to try and catch you out, or to find a way to discredit what you’ve just said in the presentation. Sometimes I think the person asking the question is trying to make a point, but for the most part usually this isn’t the case. The questions are genuine, it’s about clarifying, or getting more information. So do approach it in that spirit, that the intention is usually positive.

Now, before I even talk about the strategies, I want you to think about how you’re going to prepare in this situation, and there are some simple steps which I think are important to bear in mind when we experience this type of challenging situation.

Be aware of your body language, so what can happen for some people is that they hear the question, but when they start realising that they don’t know the answer, we can stop paying attention, even before the question has finished. We might start going into our own head, worrying, ‘How am I going to reply to this?’, and we’re not really properly paying attention.

Make sure that you’re listening to the full question, and indicate with your body language that you’re listening, through nods, or eye contact. Sometimes it’s tempting to interrupt, or jump in with an answer, but it’s always good to listen to the full question first.

Then, take a pause, a breath, before you answer. This will help steady your nerves if you’re feeling a bit nervous about answering, and will also buy you a little bit of thinking time.

And finally, in terms of this preparation, you just need to keep it simple, particularly if you’re not sure about the answer. Do not worry about giving a very long or complex answer, simple is always best in this situation. So that’s part of the preparation, now let’s talk about the 3 strategies themselves.

Key Strategy 1: avoid answering, and I don’t mean not answering the question at all, but I mean avoid answering in that moment, in the presentation. This is a delay tactic, and I would use this if you feel that you might have the information, but just not with you there and then, and I would make an offer like this:

‘Thank you for your question, I would love to explore that, but perhaps I can follow up with you afterwards’,

That’s a great opportunity to delay, and then you can go find the information, but of course, you must follow up if you promise to do so. There also might be a reason why you don’t want to answer that question in front of everybody, in which case I would say something like:

‘You know, that’s a great question, and we probably don’t have time to go into all of the detail of that today, but perhaps I can pick up with you afterwards, and we can have a one-to-one conversation.’

That way you can follow up in an individual conversation, which may be easier to answer the question.

Key Strategy 2: give a first view. People feel like they have to give a very polished or precise answer to the question. You don’t have to do this in fact. In fact, you could just give your first view on that particular question. And what I mean by this, is using phrases like:

‘My first thoughts on this topic are…’ , or

‘To start with, I would say it could be (this), but I can come back and confirm that with you.’

You are giving an initial view or opinion without committing yourself, and if you want to, once you’ve reflected on the question, you could always follow up afterwards with the person.

Key Strategy 3: clarify, when you don’t understand the question. Now, this is potentially the most tricky area, because I know for many of my clients, they worry if they will understand the question that’s being asked and that might be for a variety of different reasons. It’s unusual that it would be the actual words or phrases that people use, but it could be that somebody expresses themselves in a certain way which is unusual, or perhaps they ask a very long question. Or even they end up asking two or three questions in one go, which can be a bit confusing.

So how do you handle this? Well, one way we can do this is by inviting the person asking that question to tell you more, for example,

‘Tell me more about what you are looking to understand…’, or

‘Tell me more about what are you specifically interested in…’,

The other good reason to invite them to do this is that sometimes a person asks a question because they have a particular point of view they want to share, so it ends up being much more of a comment they’re trying to make, then a question they want to ask you.

The other technique is clarifying through reflecting. For example, saying something like:

‘So if I understand your question correctly, what you’re looking to understand is…’, or

‘Just to make sure I’ve really understood what you’re asking me, you want to have more details on this topic?’

In summary remember to prepare yourself: think about your body language, listen, ground yourself with your breath before you start answering, and keep it simple. Then the key strategies are:

  • Key Strategy 1: avoid (or delaying) answering
  • Key Strategy 2: give a first view
  • Key Strategy 3: clarify.

Thank you so much for joining me today for today’s Wednesday Words, I really hope that you’ve enjoyed it and found it useful, and  hope you can activate some of this learning.

Please tell me, what have you found most useful today? Feel free to message me or contact me, because I always love to know what you particularly find interesting.

If you are somebody who is building up their communication skills and confidence, and you would like to learn more, then why not download my free e-book resource ‘8 Keys to Confident Communication‘.

Thank you so much, and I’ll see you next time on Wednesday Words.

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