How to Deal with Difficult Questions after a Presentation at a Conference

4 Minute Read

You have done your speech, you have practised it many times and you know what body language and vocal variety you will use at different stages in your speech. But what about what happens after the speech, in the Questions and Answers session? How to you deal with difficult questions from the audience? Here are a few things you need to know in order to have a successful Q&A session:

⦁ Know your core message inside out and the key elements around it

⦁ The more concise your message is, the better – summarise it up in a phrase of maximum 3 lines

⦁ When answering questions think back to your core message and answer by referring back to one of the key elements of your core message

⦁ Your ultimate goal is to make the audience take the action you want them to take (the reason why you are doing this speech or presentation)

⦁ Think of the potential difficult questions that can come up ahead of time and consider what answers you’d give

⦁ Be prepared for loaded questions – where you’d have to show how you’d implement the new strategy or business plan or how it would work in reality given the new budget or staff shortages.

Here are a few coping strategies when dealing with difficult questions:

Write the questions down and repeat them back to the audience before you answer them – it will give you time to think and also it will ensure the audience and the person asking the question will know what you are talking about. However, you should not repeat a negative question exactly as it was said. Try to rephrase it in a positive or neutral way. If you are asked something like:, “Why are you insisting on implementing this insane new policy when no one wants it?,” look at the wider audience and rephrase the question like this: “The question is, why did we come up with this new policy?”.

Hostile Questions: if you asked a hostile question, it is very important to diffuse the negativity with an open and relaxed body language (smile) and stick to hard facts and figures and not become emotionally involved. You can reframe the question in a positive way and point back to your message whilst removing any negative language.

For example: Question: “Many of our peers will say the new policy is insane and will never work; how do you respond to that?” Smile, pause and then say: “Could you clarify some of the reasons as to why they would say this? Perhaps they have not been fully informed of the updated plans and how these are going to positively impact X. This policy will get us from X to Y and Z and it is continuously under scrutiny to ensure the high standard we have been having for our services until now”.

The Bigger Picture: If you are asked a difficult question and you try to answer it directly you may not have the opportunity to deliver your core message. You can answer such questions by creating the space to deliver your positive core message by rephrasing or changing the question and to answer it in a positive, assertive manner. In your answer you could briefly address the question asked before linking it to your core message.

For example: "Certainly, the size of the budget is a concern however let's consider the larger issue at hand..." You can even change the entire direction of the question. For example, you could say: "To fully answer that question, I first need to clarify that..."

Return the Question back to the Person Asking it by saying: "Could you please rephrase the question?". Sometimes it helps to understand the motivation behind the question. In this case you might try, "Why do you ask?" or "What do you mean by that?". Maybe the question was not clear, or maybe the question seemed more like a comment. In this case the best thing to do is to pick out a few key words and make the clarification yourself by asking, "Are you asking me X?" That way, you either are correct or the person asking will say, “No I was asking about Y.” In any case, you’ll get clarity, which will allow you again to shift the conversation to the message you want to get across.

Loaded Questions – when you get loaded questions such as: “How long will it take to implement the new system, we are already short staffed. There’s no way we can do our current jobs and devote more time to implementing these additional changes.”

You will need to diffuse the situation, in this case, by having a plan of action. You could say: “We agree that we’ll need to free up time to implement these changes, and here are the steps we are planning to take to do this.” Think about potentially loaded questions ahead of time allows you to prepare and plan action steps. If someone asks you: “Do you enjoy delivering bad news?” you could say something like: “This news is difficult for everyone. Do you have a specific question?”. The key is not to take it personal or react in any negative way.

Complex Questions – If you get a question which is really far too complex and has many elements to it, do not feel compelled to answer all the elements. Simply pick out the elements of the question you’d like to answer and say, “I would like to give everyone a chance to ask a question, so I’ll answer your first question now, and if there is time at the end, I’ll come back around to you.”

Questions You Just Don’t know the Answer to “That’s a great question. Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you on Monday.” The worst thing to do would be to make something up. Needless to say you should follow up on the person’s contact details and indeed email them on Monday with a response.

If someone is being very negative towards you and criticises you, you can say: “Thanks for letting me know; can you tell me more so I can understand better?”. “Can you help me understand why you think that…” “Can you give me specific examples?” “What was your impression when…” If you are open to learning, these questions can help you modify your behaviour. Do not assume you understand the other person’s perceptions or intentions. And of course, do not resort to name calling or blame.

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