How to Handle Difficult Questions in a Presentation

influencing others in a meeting

If you’ve ever seen a politician being asked a question they don’t want to answer, you may conclude that it’s very easy to dodge topics you want to avoid. Simply change the subject and start talking about a different topic, regardless of its relation to the original question! But – chances are the question you dodged will come up again.

And again.

In the workplace it isn’t always wise to dodge certain questions. You need to know how to handle difficult questions and find ways to satisfy the questioner. Strategies can range from politely declining to answer, to providing information in a controlled, limited way. 

The following strategies will help you stay prepared for difficult questions, and make sure you don’t start sounding like an untrustworthy politician!

Start by making sure you have fully understood the question

If there’s a particular topic you are worried will be raised, that you’d rather avoid, it’s not uncommon to make assumptions which feed your fears. People aren’t always clear with their language and without stopping for clarification, you could assume they are asking about something, they are not. So the first thing to do is to clarify the question. Repeat the question back to the questioner and keep it simple. Don’t read more into the question or add more in your answer, than is necessary. 

Don’t rush

If a difficult question arises, make sure you take your time and consider how you are going to respond before leaping in. A great trick to buy time is to repeat or rephrase the question. This will give you an opportunity to stall and think of ways to consider the right information to answer the question comfortably. 

Answer just a part of the question

If answering the entire question is uncomfortable, find a part of it you can address. This may be enough to temporarily satisfy the questioner. 

Be honest

Sometimes you just don’t know the answer. Rather than try to talk your way through this, it is often better to be upfront and honest. You can simple state you do not have sufficient information to provide an adequate answer. By doing so you are giving the questioner and the question respect. You are showing you take it seriously and want to provide the best and most complete answers you can. You can always state that you will do some research and get back to them at a later time.

Get the focus right

When we communicate we generally do one of three things; we talk about ourselves, we talk about a context, or we talk about others. Most of us tend to talk about ourselves, and the content. After all, it’s what we know best. But if you want to really connect with your audience, you need to talk about them. This can be as simple as changing your pronouns. Changing ‘I’ into ‘you’, can shift the focus. For example, “why do you think that?” Pushes the topic away from you and back onto the questioner. 

Use diversion

So we need to be careful not to just change the subject, but it is possible to divert a question to a different topic. For example, you could say, “this seems is related to…. This is what is happening with that.” This technique is known as ‘bridging’. Bridging acknowledges the question but moves on to another topic, “yes, I see what you’re saying, let’s consider this…(other topic).” 

Acknowledge the questioner

A difficult question is often made when a person is concerned, stressed, anxious, angry or frustrated. It is important to acknowledge this. By saying, “I understand you are frustrated/ angry/ anxious etc..” you give the questioner some control over the conversation by acknowledging them. This in itself can often calm them down. 

Control your tone and body language

You can always refuse to answer a question. This is entirely your prerogative, but make sure you do so politely. If your tone or body language is negative and defensive this will not help you. Keep relaxed, maintain eye contact, and hold yourself in a neutral position – avoid arm folding, for example. Try not to give yes or no answers. Always add further information about things you are willing to share. By remaining in control of yourselves you will put others at ease.

Training

Engage in Learning provide online courses to help you make perfect presentations. Our Planning a Powerful Presentations course will help you structure your ideas clearly, be aware of your audience and their needs, and use visuals that impact to enhance your presentations.

Our Presentation Skills Pathway courses can be found here