by Peter Watts
The most valuable thing that you can know when asked a question is frequently not so much the answer, but why the person is asking the question in the first place:
Your presentation has provided just enough information to hook the audience’s attention and now they want to know more!
The audience enjoyed your presentation, and liked the way you put forward your ideas. They are now showing polite appreciation by putting a couple of final questions to you.
The audience has been tempted by your message, and is looking for further reassurance before they move to the next stage with you.
Something you said in your presentation didn’t quite make sense or has been misunderstood. The audience is therefore giving you the opportunity to clarify.
Someone in the audience has a vested interest in discrediting your message. Their hostile questioning is their attempt to do so, while at the same time betraying their hostility both to you and to their colleagues.
When taking questions at the end of a presentation, it’s important to keep in mind two things:
There are several reasons why someone might be asking you a question. It’s important to understand that reason and then handle the question accordingly.
There is no rule that says you are the oracle-of-all-wisdom. It is 100% acceptable to say to someone, “That is a great question and I’ll need to check with a colleague to make sure I bring you the correct answer.”
Here is the basic process for handling questions:
Maintain open body language
It is easy for us to slip into a defensive body posture when being questioned. This sets the questioner up for confrontation even when the question itself is completely innocent. Make sure you do not fold your arms or place your hands on your hips while taking a question.
While someone is putting a question to you, concentrate on listening to their every word. Remember that there may be any one of several motivations behind the question and unless you listen carefully, it will be difficult to identify exactly what information your interrogator is seeking.
Check your understanding
Repeat the question back, gently re-phrasing it a little, and ask the questioner to confirm that you have correctly understood them. If you yourself did not understand any part of the question then ask them to tell you a little more before you answer. You would be surprised at how often this exercise prevents some major misunderstandings.
If you can answer the question, then go right ahead! If however you are unsure, then be upfront about this and say that you will need to check with a colleague.
Not only does this boost the audience’s perception of your integrity as a speaker, it also creates a valuable follow-up opportunity for after your presentation!