There are people on the planet who believe that when they are presenting they are required to answer any question they may be asked.  Believing that they, and only they, must answer any question thrown at them, they then do two things, neither of which is very sensible.

nervous presenter

Firstly, they over prepare, hoping to cover off any eventuality by boning up on their topic until their head hurts.  This not only exhausts them and wastes huge amounts of time, it causes them to be nervous about forgetting what they have learnt, which makes them perform worse on the day.  A double whammy of woe.

Secondly, they attempt to “manage” the flow of questions by making the audience wait until the end of the presentation.  If they are really cunning they then make sure they eat into the time allowed for questions by “accidentally” over-running.  This control mechanism is also flawed, because it means people with genuine questions (often where they do not understand something) have to wait until the end, by which time they have tuned out because they are now hopelessly lost.  It also means the energy and interaction you gain from questions is lost, and the focus remains on you, the presenter, throughout, instead of being spread around a bit (see below).

There are in fact at least 7 things you can do with a question, none of which involve you answering it.  You’ll have seen others using these, I’m sure:  I’m not claiming a breakthrough model of question handling.  It’s just a matter of being aware of them and practising using them.  Here goes.

1.  Reflecting.  Give it back to the person who asked.  “What are your thoughts?”  This one works really well with show offs, experts, cynics and bullies.  When you let a show off show off, they love you for it and become your friend.  They also no longer feel a need to do so.  It’s a great one for experts, because they too become your friend, and can help you to answer questions where you don’t have an answer.

2.  Deferring.  “Do you mind holding onto that one, I’ll be covering it later?”  Self explanatory.  It leaves you in control and able to stick with your agenda.

3.  Deflecting.  “Does anyone have any thoughts on that?”  This one wakes the audience up, makes it interactive, shows you are crediting the audience with at least an ounce or two or brainpower, and of course is the perfect strategy when you don’t know the answer.

4.  Scoping.  “Do you mind if we take that one offline?”  Do this with the irrelevant, specialist, time consuming, unhelpful or awkward questions you’d rather not deal with in public.

5.  Answer a different question.  This is the politician’s favourite.  When it’s an unhelpful question, veer away from it onto something similar which is helpful, and then smile sweetly at your question raiser and ask “Does that answer your question?” with a downward hand gesture which means “Shut up or I’ll knee you in the groin” and walk away slowly to another part of the room.

6.  Tell them it’s the wrong question.  I’ve only ever seen this done a few times, and it works brilliantly.  It takes a bit of confidence, but gives you an air of brilliance if you can pull it off.  “Personally I think a better question might be….”

7.  Say you don’t know.  Some people don’t realise this is a perfectly acceptable answer.  No one could ever know everything about anything, so why try?  80% knowledge is probably find for most reasonable people, so when the weird left of field question comes in that you have never considered, say so and tell them you’ll look into it and come back to them.  Just try not to use this one on every question:  there is a competence issue to be addressed somewhere along the line here!

So there you have it.  See whether you can use at least two of these next time you present. And give yourself a bonus if you use number 6.

Have a missed any?  Please share if you can think of any more.