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Your worst nightmare is about to come true. You have just completed
your presentation thinking that it went pretty well and are gearing
up for the final phase, the question and answer period. You're looking
around the room, hoping to see a smile, a friendly face, a sympathetic
someone with their hand raised. But that's not what appears in front
of you. Instead, you begin to sense hostility. No one is smiling,
and the first question just about knocks your breath out. Your stomach
falls to the floor as you try to think of the right answer, but as
you begin to hem and haw and sweat, your audience begins to leave
But, wait. Let's backtrack here for a minute. Could you have saved
this situation? What steps should you have taken to make sure you
were prepared for this "worst case" scenario? All too often,
a dynamic speech is ruined by a poor performance during the closing
minutes of the presentation when the question and answer period is
held. And the usual reason for this is simple -- poor preparation,
or no preparation at all. Many speakers feel so confident about their
subject that they believe they will be able to "wing it"
at the end -- and do it successfully. In my more than twenty years
of experience as a speaker and trainer, I have rarely found this to
Although you cannot plan for the question and answer period as precisely
as you can for your own presentation, you can be prepared and you
can cope with a hostile audience. Here's how I prepare for a question
and answer period, and these recommendations will work whether your
audience has their teeth bared -- or are smiling up at you.
Know your subject, and know it cold. There's nothing that will be
found out quicker than a speaker who doesn't know what she (or he)
is talking about. Your preparation should include anticipating who
will be in your audience, what questions they are most likely to ask
and why they will ask them. This is common practice for lawyers preparing
witnesses and essential procedure for politicians before a press conference
or a debate. Some questioners will be trying to put you on the spot
-- show off their own knowledge, or impress a boss or co-worker. By
learning about your audience in advance, you can be prepared with
information and the correct response to help reinforce your message.
Of course when speaking before a very large group, it may not be possible
to anticipate what you will be asked, but as long as you know at least
as much if not more about you subject than your audience, your confidence
level should carry you safely through even the roughest interrogation.
Keep it short
Even though you have a wealth of information to share with your audience,
you should not forget that the "Q & A" period is not
the time for a lengthy discourse. Answer the questioner as briefly
and as succinctly as possible, but don't give away more information
than you have to. Save some for follow-up questions. With a long-winded
response you also run the risk of boring the rest of the audience--and
lose even those who were with you in the beginning. If you feel it
is appropriate, tell your questioner you will be available after the
presentation to give a more detailed answer.
Don't get defensive
If a questioner asks you something you don't know -- never, ever try
to bluff your way through. I guarantee you'll be found out. The best
answer is an honest one. Simply say, "I don't know the answer
to that question, and I will find out and get back to you quickly
if you will give me your name and address at the end of this session."
Then make sure you do follow up. An honest answer may not make a hostile
questioner any nicer, but you will look good in the eyes of the rest
of the audience. Here are some tricks I have used successfully to
diffuse even hostile questioners:
- Rephrase the
question before answering -- this gives you some extra time to formulate
- Use the question
as a way to reinforce your views
- Instead of
getting defensive, use humor or a short anecdote to lighten the
- If you can't
answer exactly what you were asked, talk about an aspect you do
- Don't take
hostility personally -- and don't let the situation get out of hand.
Stay calm and focused and above all, be courteous to the questioner.
Maintain Control...and keep your cool
All successful question-and-answer periods have something in common.
The speaker maintains control of the room. You don't want to appear
stern or unapproachable, merely in control. This requires you to be
prepared; to use finesse when answering; and to enjoy the opportunity
the question and answer period gives you to shine. Use this time as
a chance to get to know your audience better, to share some useful
information with them and to let them get to know you even better.
A successful question and answer session can help to end your presentation
on an upbeat note -- and when you've learned to deal successfully
with hostility, you and your audience will both be the winners.
Brody Communications Ltd. 1999
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