Handling Questions in Presentations

Delivering a presentation may seem daunting at the best of times. However, the prospect of being presented with tough questions during or after your presentation can be terrifying.

People may ask questions for a variety of reasons. They may be seeking clarification, showing genuine interest, presenting a contrary view or even trying to ‘catch you out’. The latter is never pleasant, but it does happen.

The tone or intent behind the questions will vary on the context of your presentation.

A politician making a speech on a new policy is likely to expect hostile questions from political opponents and challenging questions from the media.

In an academic context, the validity of one’s arguments or the reliability of one’s research may be subjected to scrutiny. This could be particularly rigorous depending on the level of the presentation – for example, presenting ground-breaking new research to an audience of experts at a conference, will receive greater scrutiny than presenting to first year undergraduates or a non-expert audience.

A speaker talking to people with an interest in the subject is likely to have a supportive audience, who may ask questions to get more information or to clarify anything they are uncertain of.

Whatever questions you face, it’s important to be able to manage them and keep the situation under control.

One aspect to consider is whether you intend to take questions from the audience throughout the presentation or just at the end. Whatever you decide, make this clear to the audience.

Taking questions during a presentation can be an effective way of clarifying any misunderstandings that the audience may have. However, if a question is tangential or too focused on a specific detail that will not interest most of the audience, it can prove distracting and disruptive.

If you do decide to take questions during the presentation, here are some tips for dealing with them:

  • Answer questions that require just a short clarification
  • If a question concerns something you will mention later in the presentation, say something like “that’s a good question and something I will come to shortly”.
  • If a question requires a lengthy, detailed answer that may disrupt the flow of the presentation, you should ask the person to remind you to answer it at the end of the presentation or tell them that you will address the question one-to-one after the presentation.

If you decide that all questions will be taken at the end of the presentation, you should ensure that sufficient time is allocated for this.

It is also helpful, after the question and answer session has been completed, to summarise the key points again. This will keep your message in the mind of the audience and will be a useful point to end on.

When responding to questions, there are few things to remember:

  • Be an active listener - listen carefully to the question and repeat it back. Ask for clarification if needed.
  • Don’t make it up – if you don’t know the answer, it’s often better to admit this than to make it up. It will be embarrassing and damaging to your credibility if you attempt to ‘blag’ your way out of the question. Instead, offer to find out the answer and get back to the person. Alternatively, there may be someone in the audience who knows the answer.
  • Be prepared – make sure you know your subject well. While you’re not expected to know everything, not knowing something basic can be very embarrassing. Good preparation is essential.
  • Remain calm – if someone is deliberately trying to provoke you, remember to keep calm. Don’t be rude and try not to show your irritation or anger. Remain polite, courteous and assertive.
  • Have one-to-one discussions if necessary – if someone asks a very detailed question or wants to ask follow-up questions, it’s worth suggesting that you speak to them one-to-one afterwards. This can be useful if they are trying to turn the session into a debate.

Handling questions in presentations can be tricky – badly handled questions can derail you. However, if you prepare yourself, you can turn questions to your advantage and ensure your presentations are a success. Remember that an audience that is asking questions is more likely to be engaged with what you’re saying, rather than one which is sitting in silence. Embrace any questions you are asked as positively and honestly as possible and you will likely feel a lot less daunted about handling them in presentations.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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