Tips for Handling Questions

Read this text for more ideas on ways to respond to questions during your presentation.

As with everything else, spending some time anticipating likely questions and preparing your answers can reduce your anxiety and improve your performance. Practicing with a live audience and encouraging them to ask questions is the best way to do this.

Get help from the audience. Sometimes you find a question incomprehensible, either because it is poorly expressed or because the speaker's English (or your own) is not that great.

In cases like these, do not hesitate to say "I'm not sure I understand the question. Can someone help me?" This gives other audience members permission to translate; usually, someone will be able to repeat or reformulate the question.

Hold something in reserve. Most talks are based on articles, book chapters, etc. Instead of trying to cram everything from the written piece into your talk – which is probably impossible anyway – hold back some of the interesting secondary points, data, or details. This strategy ensures that you'll still have something to say after the formal talk ends.

Sometimes I will end the formal talk with a black slide, but leave several more slides waiting behind it for things I want to talk about that I couldn't fit in. "Glad you asked! That reminds me that I wanted to say something about..."

Divert difficult questions. Obviously, you should try to answer all questions on their own terms if you can. But what do you do if you get stumped? My own belief is that if you do not know the answer to a question, you should say so – but if that's all you do, your response will be seen as a failure.

Instead, say something like this: "That's a very interesting question. I'm not sure I have a good answer right now, but your question reminds me that I wanted to say a few words about X..." Then, fill in the "X" with one of the points you've held back – ideally, of course, one that connects to the question somehow.

Source: Paul N. Edwards,
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Last modified: Wednesday, September 23, 2020, 3:41 PM