Public speaking typically makes people nervous, but question-and-answer sessions can terrify even veteran public speakers.
Press conferences are especially horrifying, because your answers will go far beyond the audience in the room.
PR and marketing pros speaking before reporters, community groups, company employees or potential clients might deliver flawless presentations by spending hours preparing and rehearsing.
Then comes the Q & A session that introduces a new level of uncertainty. Speakers don’t know what their audience will ask. Questions might be hostile, complicated or incomprehensible. Some may not even be questions at all. Perplexing 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.
1. Anticipate questions. If you’re 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.
2. 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 & Co.
3. 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.”
4. 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.
5. Maintain eye contact. This direct connection during the Q&A is just as is crucial as it is throughout the presentation; it 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 it will help the audience connect with you.
6. Deflect off-beat questions. Presenters are bound to receive off-topic and even off-the-wall questions. Respond with curiosity, Webb advises, 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, say you don’t know the answer but will investigate.
7. Solicit questions beforehand. If possible, ask attendees to submit their queries ahead of time. That will give you time to formulate answers, consolidate questions and weed out irrelevant non-questions.
8. Repeat the questions. Reiterating or rephrasing the question lets the audience hear it, which is 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.
9. 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.
10. Don’t feel pressured to respond. If you don’t know the answer, don’t stumble for a vague reply. Admit you don’t know and say you’ll look into the matter. 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.
A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.