Dealing Elegantly With Questions During a Presentation

Roger is a highly experienced product manager in a multinational company in Europe. Last week, he was making a PowerPoint sales presentation to the management committee of a potential client who appeared to be very interested in his product. He felt that he had prepared the presentation to perfection and had high hopes of convincing the client to sign a contract. Soon after starting his presentation, one of the client’s team asked Roger a question which was answered in the following slide. However, not wanting to offend the questioner, Roger gave him a brief yet concise answer, but to his amazement, his boss jumped in to “clarify” his response and then another of the client’s team asked the boss a question about his response while another member of the client’s team started arguing with a companion and things went downhill from there.

Roger, for all his experience in presentations, was at a loss about what to do: shut up and leave them to it or try to elegantly take control of the situation. Finally, using verbal man-management techniques such as “echoic responses” and various non-verbal techniques he was able to get the group back “on-task” and focussed on his presentation. He did, however, tell the audience that he was sure that he had anticipated most of their questions and included the answers in his presentation and then ask everyone to write down their questions and promised to answer all of them at the end of the presentation. He informed the audience that this was to ensure that they finished in the allotted time as he knew that they were busy people. From that moment onwards, things went more smoothly. Roger decided that this was the last time that this would happen!

Points to remember;

- In this article, we are assuming that the presenter has really done their homework and knows in detail the Needs, Wants and Lacks of the audience and their organization.

- Not everyone is equal in a presentation. There are “Powers”, “Influencers” and “Hot bodies”. The “Power(s)” matter the most, then the “Influencers”. The “Hot Bodies” are often there just to fill the room and usually have NO say in the final decision.

- Some people have hidden agendas and will see a presentation as an opportunity to show how much they know or score points with bosses, etc. and the best way to do this is to ask questions either to the presenter or other audience members.

- If you accept, and answer, a question during the presentation, whether it is relevant or not, you are setting a subconscious precedent for more interruptions.

- If people have the opportunity to ask questions, many will focus on their own specific interests or worries that might not be shared by other members of the audience.

- Answering a question is often interpreted as a presenter’s way to initiate a dialogue with the audience (in linguistics this is known as “turn taking”: you ask me a question, I answer you and look at you and this can be interpreted as “I expect you to continue” so the original questioner does so).

- Answering questions and entering into dialogues often leads to a deviation from the topic & this, in turn, may often lead to boredom and disconnection for the rest of the audience.

- The time used to deal with questions consumes the time available for the presentation. Most Decision-makers are normally busy people and have heavy schedules so wasting their time is generally not appreciated!

- By postponing questions, you are showing that you are different from other presenters because you have the confidence & skills necessary to clearly present what the audience Needs, Wants and Lacks in a clear, structured and elegant manner and the ability to answer their questions when they have seen the entire presentation.

- Many presenters do not expect questions during their presentations and when they occur they are unsure about how to respond appropriately which frequently results in them having a “mental block” which impedes them from giving the correct answer or makes them waffle on without actually answering the question. A worse case scenario is when the presenter give an incorrect or inappropriate answer.

- Answering questions can often lead to a loss of control of the presentation by the presenter as indicated in the situation at the beginning of this article.

Preparation:

- Ensure that you know the Needs, Wants and Lacks of the client in THIS presentation.

- Identify the “Power(s)”, “Influencers” and “Hot bodies”.

- Anticipate possible questions from the “Powers” and “Influencers”.

- Incorporate the answer to these questions in the development of the presentation. Rhetorical questions are extremely useful as ways to get the audience to participate mentally without interrupting the presenter and the flow of the presentation. They also “personalize” the presentation by providing the presenter with the opportunity to show their knowledge of the problems / worries of the audience in a controlled manner.

At the very beginning of the Presentation:

- Inform the audience that you believe that you have anticipated possible questions and have incorporated the answers into the presentation so that the answers are given within a specific context.

- Ask the audience to make a note of their questions and that at the end of the presentation, you promise to answer all of them. We recommend using a phrase like: “We know that you are very busy people so I would appreciate it if you could keep all you questions until the end of the presentation. In this way, we won’t get sidetracked and we’ll finish on-time”.

With this structure we are using both the Primacy effect and the Recency effect to influence our audience. (Primacy: recognizing that they are “busy people”. Recency: “not side-tracked… finish on time”).

When you get asked a question, we suggest the following verbal responses in conjunction with the appropriate non-verbal communication using posture, gaze, orientation, proximity and gestures:

1. Congratulate the questioner:

By using one of the following types of “social markers” you are showing respect to both the person asking the question and the question itself.

Examples of possible social markers:

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