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Handling Difficult Participant and Question/Answer Session  

BY MARK W. HARDWICK, PhD.

Your presentation concludes with an enthusiastic closing and you have acknowledged the applause but there is still some work to do—answer the participants questions. The Q&A is an important dimension of your talk because it can influence the audience members to take action or change their point of view.  After all, you've had time to practice the rest of the talk. This is the part of the presentation where your ability to be spontaneous, flexible and show your interactive skills will be tested by the audience. Since you can't always predict what you'll be asked, how can you prepare for the questioning? Here are a few tips to ensure that you are being responsive to the questions being asked:

  1. Always repeat each question so the entire audience knows what you've been asked.
  2. Before you answer, take a moment to reflect on the question. By not rushing to give an answer, you show a degree of respect for the questioner, and you give yourself time to be sure you are answering the question that actually was asked. If you are unsure, restate the question or ask for a clarification.
  3. Above all, wait for the questioner to finish asking the question before you begin your answer! The only exception is when it becomes necessary to break in on a vague, rambling question; be careful not to be rude or come across as arrogant. If you don’t want to handle the question in the large group or your attempt to answer didn’t satisfy the person or the person wants to argue or continue the discussion—politely suggest you get together after the talk.
  4. Everyone knows there is a limited time for Q&A so tactfully reframe the question and then provide the answer. Say something like "If I understand the question, it seems that the best way to handle this situation is.. This will focus the question and give you a place to begin an answer. Remember, that your ability to interact with an audience also is being evaluated.
  5. Avoid extended discussions with one person, you can deflect the question to another audience member and then summarize the different points of view. Be careful in avoiding arguments or appearing defensive.
  6. If a question is asked during the talk, and it will help the audience understand a concept or keep the presentation on track clarify and concisely answer the question immediately. This helps build trust and credibility with the audience.
  7. Postpone questions that are off the mark or would be better covered at the end of the presentation. This is particularly important if the answer will distract either you or the audience away from the flow and main points of the presentation.
  8. If you can't answer a question, just say so. Don't apologize. You then may:
    • Offer to research an answer, get back to the questioner later.
    • Suggest resources which would help the questioner to address the question themselves.
    • Ask for suggestions from the audience.