What to do when your presentation’s Q-and-A goes awry

Sometimes you have to redirect an off-topic question or evade a direct attack. Here’s how to keep your balance to stay on target and thrill the crowd.

Two readers recently posed questions about what to do when your presentation veers off track because of audience questions.

Put another way: Is there any way to get the audience in line with your presentation? You’ll have to float like a butterfly, not sting like a bee. Here’s what they asked:

What are graceful ways to bring off-topic questions (sometimes relative, sometimes absolute) back to the body of the talk when Q-and-A veers off-course?

How do you handle the person who won’t stop interrupting, commenting and asking questions to an annoying degree (you can actually feel the audience bristling)? Every so often they pop up, and it can get disruptive.

Let me just say this: You want questions. They’re a sign the audience is engaged and expects you to have answers to issues important to them.

Managing questioners is important not just for staying focused on your topic, but also to create a level playing field for the entire audience. At the same time, shutting down questioners and refusing to engage won’t win you fans, which is why it’s crucial to find graceful ways to manage questioners.

As with any extemporaneous part of your presentation, however, some forethought and planning are vital to your success.

Here are some graceful options when you’re handling a questioner:

1. Create a bridge between the question and the answer.

Especially effective with an off-topic question, this tactic works just as well with queries in line with your points. It’s a three-point movement:

  • Acknowledge the question;
  • Affirm or rebut;
  • Explain why.

One example: “I know there’s a lot of debate on that point among practitioners in the field right now. In my experience, however, that option limits our ability to measure our results. That’s why I recommend….”

A simple acknowledgement (“That’s a thorny issue, isn’t it? Thanks for pointing that out.”) can do a lot to let the question stand as the point, instead of requiring you to respond.

Using the bridge tactic also creates enough space to give you time to think-and it gives the questioner some recognition of her issue, even if you’re disagreeing.

2. Remind the audience of your focus today.

Try saying, “I wish I could delve into that topic, but it’d take another session or two to cover.”

Perhaps, “I know that’s a big issue, but my focus today is a small one—what to do before that happens.”

Don’t be afraid to point out how your topic is juxtaposed against or related to the one brought up.

3. Beware of argumentative questions—and deflect them.

Sometimes you’ll have an overtly hostile audience member whose questions aim to lead you into an argument. Don’t bite. Instead, cultivate (through practice) a calm stance and a few graceful comebacks that help you acknowledge the gambit and move away from the fight.

“If I could answer that, I’d be a millionaire,” for example, is a mild but humorous way to deflect a question that asks you to define or fix something unknowable.

“Where are the data you’re basing that on?” helps dilute a challenge that’s full of exaggerations and low on facts.

4. Acknowledge the persistence of the persistent questioner.

You think you’re distracted by the five-time questioner? So are the audience members trying to get a word in edgewise.

I don’t mind taking more than one question per person, but if you suspect you have someone wanting to dominate the conversation, it helps to say: “I’d like to give others the chance to participate. Let’s talk afterward; it’s clear you have a lot to say.”

That acknowledgement helps the audience know you know there’s a problem.

5. Breathe, smile and stay calm.

That’s your mantra during Q-and-A time. You’ll want to welcome questions as well as control their flow.

Even when a pointed question comes up, your lack of overreaction will help the audience realize that you’re in calm control.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.

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