Presentations

by Steve Roche

Questions and handouts

Presenters commonly allow time for the audience to put questions to them immediately after the presentation. You don’t have to do this, but you should make a conscious decision one way or the other. If you choose to take questions, plan this time as carefully as the rest of the presentation.

If you decide to allow questions at any stage of your presentation, there is a danger they could throw you off course. In more informal situations you may welcome interruptions, but it is generally best to ask the audience to keep questions until the end.

Either leave time for questions or offer an alternative opportunity or procedure (such as follow-up by email).

  • When planning, put yourself in the role of the listeners and anticipate likely questions, so that you will be partially prepared.
  • Develop your own ways of handling unexpected or unfriendly questions.
Tips

  1. You don’t have to answer a question just because it has been asked.
  2. It’s OK not to know all the answers!

No questions?

People usually ask genuine questions either because they didn’t understand part of your presentation or because they did understand and are seeking more information. If there are no questions, it may be for one of several reasons:

  1. Your presentation did not generate any interest
  2. The audience were unable to relate to the subject
  3. Your presentation was poor and has confused them
  4. They are still taking in what you said
  5. No-one wants to be first to ask a question
  6. Your status as speaker may overawe them.

If there are no questions, this is a great time to have a buddy or mentor in the audience. If the reason falls into categories 1, 2 or 3, a friend will be able to give you helpful feedback. If the reason is 4, 5 or 6, they can help you out by having a question ready. And of course, if you talked about it beforehand, it’s an opportunity for you to have a brilliant answer prepared!

It can be uncomfortable to be confronted with silence when you have asked for questions. In addition to planting a question on the floor, you could:

  • Get the chair to ask a question
  • Ask the audience a question (but it must be simple – one that is not intimidating).
  • Frame your own question, which you then answer: ‘One question I often get asked is... ’

If it’s clear that nobody wants to put questions, don’t go on asking for them, just bring the presentation to a close.

Heard and understood?

When you take a question, it’s important to make sure both that you understand it and that everyone else has heard and understood it:

  • Repeat the question
  • Re-phrase it if necessary and get the questioner to confirm it’s correct
  • If you don’t understand a question at all, say so and ask the person to re-phrase it.

When answering questions, it is natural to maintain eye contact with the questioner, but involve all the audience in your answer – look around and engage everyone’s interest.

Difficult questions

You can use the politician’s ploy to buy thinking time:

I’m glad you asked me that, it’s a very good question.

It is also fine to say:

I don’t know the answer to that, but I will find out and get back to you.

Or even

Would someone else like to answer that one?

If you feel the question is too complex or personal, then say

I’d be happy to discuss that with you afterwards.

If a critical statement is disguised as a question, draw attention to it by asking for the intention behind what’s been said. If you are faced with a hostile or aggressive questioner, always keep your temper (and your credibility). If they will not accept a point, repeat the facts and be prepared to differ. Remember you are in charge, so you have the right to say:

I prefer not to answer that question at this point.

You will probably have a specific time for questions – always keep to the time agreed. Bring the session firmly to a close:

This must be the last question.

Red herrings

Sometimes you will get a question that is only vaguely relevant to the presentation. You must reject such questions – even if it’s something you know a lot about – politely and firmly:

That’s an interesting question, but outside the scope of this presentation – I’d be happy to discuss it with you afterwards.

Some questioners may try to upstage you by drawing attention to their own expertise. Be wary of them allowing them to take over question time.

Finish strongly

End the Q&A session on a high note, rather than allowing things to peter out. Wait until you have given an excellent answer. If this doesn’t happen, throw in your own question and answer it yourself.

Handouts

This term describes anything that you plan to give to people as part of your presentation (usually a piece of paper). Use handouts as an opportunity:

  • To reinforce your message
  • To provide supplementary detail or supporting information that you don’t want to cover in the presentation
  • To offer something attractive or of value, that people will want to keep and look at
  • To include your contact details.

If you decide to use handouts, make sure:

  • They are legible (good copies)
  • They are not too long
  • You have enough of them.

Potential drawbacks

  • Some people will read them while you are still talking.
  • Some people won’t read them at all.
  • Some people will make paper planes out of them.

Timing

Another dilemma is whether to offer handouts at the beginning, in which case there’s a risk that the audience will stare at the paper, not you, or at the end, in which case people won’t know how much to write down.

You must weigh up the pros and cons and make a decision for each particular case.