Your speaking skills - Free personal report

23rd January 2014

The Four Step Approach to Answering Awkward Audience Questions

Delivering a Talk

You're not alone if you dread the Questions & Answers part of a speech or presentation. It's much easier to just speak than to have to think quickly on your feet when you get asked "THAT" question. You know, the question that you dread.  The uncomfortable one about your topic that challenges your viewpoint. Many times we fear that our public speaking nerves could cause an uncomfortable response when we're asked the 'tough' questions. Here's a foolproof way to answer awkward questions with grace and ease.

Four steps to answering awkward questions. 

  1. Prepare. Remember that if you're knowledgeable on your subject matter, you should be prepared for anything when you speak in public. Remind yourself of this.
  2. React or rather DON'T react to the question. If you startle or get unsettled you will create and uncomfortable feeling in your audience, who will be swift to pick up on this feeling. Stay calm and remember that YOU are the expert on your presentation subject. After all you were asked to speak specifically on the topic. Don't get defensive or pass the blame onto someone else, remember to maintain calm.
  3. Repeat the question back after summarizing it in your mind. This will give you a moment to prepare your response and it lets the audience member asking the question know that you "heard" them.
  4. Open up the question to the audience, if need be. You could say, 'That's a fascinating viewpoint. What do you (gesturing to the audience) think?" As the other audience members answer, you can add your own insights as well.

'Mindset is very important when answering awkward questions in public speaking,' says psychologist Mamta Saha from Think Spa London. 'You have to believe the audience are on your side. Before you speak, tell yourself that any questions you get from the audience are coming from a place of "wanting to understand" your content, not from wanting to trip you up.' 

What if you can't answer the question?

What if a question is too difficult to answer? It's okay to admit that you don't know something when you speak in public. In fact this can lead to more authenticity for you as a speaker. Saying "That's an interesting idea, I'd not thought of it that way" with enthusiasm is a more positive spin than muttering "I don't know.".  Showing your audience that you are open to new ideas is a part of creating rapport and showing that you are an authentic speaker. It's a very powerful too to show that you're learning from your audience as well.

Sometimes, questions are out of the scope of your presentation, or off topic. Remember that you're still responsible for the entire audience and don't get sidetracked with a one-on-one conversation with one audience member, whilst everyone else is yawning and wishing you moved on. Positively acknowledge the question and if warranted, invite them for a quick chat after the event.

What if the questioner quite strongly disagrees with you?

This can feel very awkward especially when the questioner is quite passionate about his/her views. Use the four step technique above and if you feel that you have fully answered the question, announce that you will move on to another question. You might even suggest a discussion afterwards, if you feel comfortable doing so. If the they persist, utilize a strategy called ‘the broken record’ to reassert yourself : “I need to move on ... I'm afraid we do need to move on ... Moving on now.”  then begin to answer another question from the audience or end the presentation.

In the end your audience will usually be on your side. After all, they came to hear you speak, not to hear the 'unwanted panelist' from the audience express his or her opinion. Your audience will thank you for taking charge.

If you utilize these four steps you can handle any question. Prepare, (don't) React, Repeat, Open Up. Always keep in mind that you can handle anything thrown your way, even in the most awkward of circumstances.

More information on how to connect with your audience? 

You betcha! If you're eager to become a more inspiring speaker, Ginger has a multitude of courses just right for you! From freebies to e-courses, books to workshops, jump in to Ginger. Click here for a full list of Ginger courses and resources.

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