Bouncing back after a bizarre audience question

Most anyone who has delivered a presentation has gotten that jaw-dropping, out-of-the-blue query that brings your program to a screeching halt. Here’s how to reset and move forward.


Have you ever been asked a really weird question in a presentation? It usually starts off with “I know this is completely off-topic, but … [insert wing-nut question here].”

So, how to you bounce back from an audience question that derails the presentation?

As a former college professor, I can assure you that my students were the masters of off-topic questions intended to derail what I was going to say. I’ve got years of experience in this area.

Step 1: Smile and say, “Thank you.”

Smile really big, and thank them for the question. It takes guts to ask any question during a presentation. You’ve got an engaged person, so don’t squander that moment.

Step 2: Assess the answer.

Can you answer the question quickly and succinctly? Do you even know the answer to that question? Will the answer of the question take you so far off topic that it’s worth wasting the audience’s time?

From here it’s a “Choose your own adventure” strategy.

Step 3: Pick the best tactic to keep the person engaged and your presentation on track.

If you can answer quickly: Answer their question succinctly, and then invite them to talk to you after the presentation to chat more about the question. It shows you care about their question while keeping you and your presentation on track.

You have no idea whatsoever how to answer: Tell them that you don’t know the answer to their question, but you’ll find out who does. Ask for their business card, then follow up with the answer. It’s all about the follow-up. Do what you say you’ll do.

Answering the question will take you to outer Mongolia: Tell the person it’s a great question and that you’d be happy to answer it otherwise, but it’s outside the scope of this presentation. In the interest of time, invite them to speak to you after the presentation ends.

Step 4: Transition back to your presentation.

Take a pause; pauses signal a change in thought. Also, it gives you a moment to regroup and think of where to go next.

Next, say something like, “We were talking about (whatever topic) before that great question, and now I’d like to continue (or talk about what comes next).”

An advanced move: If there is any way you can tie the question to the topic at hand, do so—even tangentially. It makes the transition easier. A simple pause with a transitional statement works just as well.

A strange question does not have to derail your presentation, but it is important to handle it in a manner that makes the questioner feel acknowledged and appreciated so she stays engaged with what you have to say.

Dr. Michelle Mazur is a public speaking coach and communication expert. She blogs at Relationally Speaking, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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