While public speaking typically makes people nervous, question-and-answer sessions can terrify even veteran public speakers. Press conferences are especially terrifying since your answers will go far beyond the audience in the room.
PR and marketing professionals speaking before reporters, community groups, company employees, or potential clients can deliver flawless presentations by spending hours preparing and rehearsing. But then, comes the Q & A session that introduces a new level of uncertainty. Speakers don’t know what their audience will ask. Questions may be hostile, complicated or incomprehensible. Some may not even be questions at all. Difficult questions can put speakers on the defensive and cloud their thinking.
These recommendations from public speaking experts can help PR and marketing presenters better handle Q&A sessions.
Anticipate questions. If delivering the presentation for the first time, ask colleagues what they’d ask. Search on Google with different keywords related to your topic. Also peruse social media sites. Answer important questions directly related to your topic in your presentation. Prepare responses to peripheral questions but don’t add them to the presentation, advises Ashish Arora, co-founder of SketchBubble.com.
Seek empathy. Rather than trying to attack you, most people pose tough questions because they’re concerned about their own situation. Try to feel empathy for them by viewing their problems from their perspective, recommends Caroline Webb, CEO of coaching firm Sevenshift and a senior adviser to McKinsey & Company.
Find an area of agreement. To respond to people who disagree with you, find points that you agree on. “This helps create what psychologists call ‘in-group’ — a sense of being on the same team and sharing common ground,” Webb writes. “It roots the exchange in the kind of mutual respect that helps to reduce the sense of threat in the situation.”
Signal appreciation. Say you appreciate the question with something like: “That’s an excellent question,” or “That’s a good topic. Thank you for asking.” That can diffuse hostility and give you time to formulate a response to tough questions.
Maintain eye contact. Eye contact during the Q&A is just as is critical as it is throughout the presentation. Eye contact engages an audience. Don’t just look at the person who asked the question; look at the entire audience. Focus on individuals and small groups around the room. You’ll seem confident and help the audience connect with you.
Deflect off-beat questions. Presenters are bound to receive off-topic, even off-the-wall questions, at some point. Respond with curiosity, Webb advisees, with something like: “Can you tell me more about what’s driving your question?” or “That’s intriguing — is this something you’ve experienced yourself?” If you’re still perplexed, admit you don’t know the answer but will investigate.
Solicit questions beforehand. If possible, ask attendees to submit questions ahead of time. That will give you time to formulate answers, consolidate questions and weed out irrelevant non-questions.
Repeat the questions. Repeating – or rephrasing — the question allows the audience hear the question, especially valuable in large rooms with poor acoustics. Rephrasing an irrelevant or unintelligible question can let you pivot to a question you prefer to answer.
Ask for reactions. Some people don’t have a question but want to share something on the topic. To include them, ask the audience for their views. “Questions are great, but you are also welcome to just share an observation, it doesn’t have to be in the form of a question,” writes Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, an independent consultant and speaker.
Don’t feel pressured to respond. If you don’t know the answer, don’t stumble for a vague answer. Admit you don’t know. Instead, say you’ll look into the question. In addition, some questions require a response in private. Post your contact information on a slide or hand out business cards so audience members can send follow-up questions.
Bottom Line: Q&A sessions can be the most difficult part of a public presentation. Following these recommendations can help you remain calm and deftly answer or deflect hostile or inappropriate questions.
Michael Kling is manager of public relations, marketing and social media at Glean.info, a media monitoring and measurement service that provides customized media monitoring and PR analytics solutions.