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A2A: Answering questions in a presentation

Have you had this experience in a presentation? You’re in the back of the room and someone close to the front asks a question. All you hear “Is it true that mumble mumble mumble mumble?” And the instructor replies, “Yes, that’s absolutely critical.”

Everyone around you is whispering, “What did he say?” “What’s critical?” “What was the question?”

Many of us need to do presentations at company or customer events. Here’s the best technique to deal with questions from the audience.

Listen to the question

I know it seems obvious but you should have the courtesy to actually listen to the question. Many presenters think they know what question is being asked, particularly if they’ve given the presentation more than a few times, and they cut the person off in the midst of their question. I’m sure we’ve all had the occasion when the instructor interrupted with “yes, yes, I know what you’re going to ask.” How rude! And then, only about half the time does the instructor answer the right question.

  • Q: “Reis and Trout explain in their books that positioning needs to—”
  • A: “Yes, yes, Positioning is a great book but you need to focus on the buyer message, not the competition.”
  • Q: “...Uh, I was going to ask, who owns the positioning process?”

So, listen to the question. Even if it takes a long time.

Re-state the question

You’ve listened to the question but, before you answer, always repeat the essence of the question. Even if you think you know exactly what the question is. Repeating the question gives the person with the question the chance to clarify the question and helps the rest of the room hear what was asked.

I was once asked a long rambling question. It went on for a really, really, really long time. As I fumbled to restate the question, another person in the room said, “He’s asking if it’s a key sequenced dataset, and the answer is ‘yes.’”

Sometimes your summary causes the person to restate the question in simpler language and sometimes you get clarification from another person in the room.

Answer the question

Now that you’ve listened to the question, and restated it to be sure you understand what’s being asked, you’re ready to answer the question. Answer the question and attempt to tie the answer back to your presentation if you can.

If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know but I’ll find out” and it’s okay to solicit feedback from the audience. “Does anyone else have a point of view on this?” You can also say, “That’s a really interesting question but it’s outside the scope of this presentation. Let’s get together at a break to talk about it in detail.”

A favorite technique is to throw the question to the audience before you answer. I often say, “Before I answer this, can I get some other perspectives?” This helps keep your session interactive and keeps the audience engaged.

Remember, people are in your presentation to learn what they need to know, not necessarily what you want to tell them.

Confirm that you’ve answered the question

So you’ve answered the question and you can get back to your next point, right? Nope. One more step. Ask, “Does that answer your question?” Even with listening and restating the question, you may still have missed what the person wanted to know. It may seem tedious but your audience will appreciate that you’re actually interested in making sure they understand.

If you take the mindset that people are in the room to learn—rather than you’re in the room to tell or sell—you’ll find it easier to use questions as a key part of teaching.

What Q&A techniques do you use? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

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