The Art of Speaking  

Handling difficult audience questions?

Responding on the fly

YouTube /Wade Paterson

One of the most difficult aspects of public speaking is handling questions that may come from your audience after you’ve delivered your presentation.

For starters, you don’t have any way of knowing what your audience might ask; therefore, you need to think quickly on your feet.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Shawn Kanungo at a work conference. Shawn has built a reputation as one of the innovative keynote speakers in Canada, but I recently had a conversation with him and even he admitted that answering audience questions is the most challenging part of what he does.

Shawn explained what has been most beneficial for him to overcome this challenge is to embrace the power of pausing. When Shawn is asked a question, he doesn’t respond right away. He takes a moment of silence to think about what specifically is being asked and collect his thoughts before delivering a response.

Shawn’s tactic isn’t an easy one to implement because many new speakers feel awkward if there is silence of any kind while they’re on stage. Therefore, they rush to respond as soon as a question is asked. It’s important to remember that tactical silence won’t seem odd to those in the crowd; in fact, it can be a sign of confidence and thoughtfulness.

A second thing you can do is repeat the question. This does a few important things. First, it clarifies with the audience member that you are understanding exactly what they are asking. Second, it informs the rest of the crowd what the question is (especially if the person asking the question wasn’t very loud or didn’t have a mic). Third, it buys yourself a few extra seconds to think of a response.

In the first paragraph, I suggested there is no way of knowing exactly what your audience is going to ask. While this is technically true, it doesn’t mean you can’t still prepare and develop an idea of the types of questions that could potentially come your way.

Try delivering your speech to a friend or family member and task them with asking you three-to-five questions after they’ve heard your speech. There is a reasonable chance they will ask you a question that your future audience will also ask. And if nothing else, it’s a good process to practice answering questions you’re not prepared for and get comfortable with thinking on the fly.

Inevitably, there will be situations where you get a question you don’t know the answer to. In these instances, my best advice is to be transparent with the audience. Those in attendance will respect you if you’re up front and explain you don’t know the answer, especially if you promise to follow-up once you’ve looked into it.

Sometimes you can give partial answers as well. For example, if I was delivering a speech about new social media platforms and a member of the audience asked how many monthly active users are on BeReal, I could respond with the following (if I don’t know the exact answer) “That’s a great question. I’m not 100 per cent sure what that specific number is, however, I know BeReal is one of the fastest-growing social media platforms of all-time, so regardless of what that exact statistic is, I think it’s a worthwhile use of your time to start experimenting with this app.”

A final bonus tip of how to handle difficult questions, is to ensure your timing is right. I’ve been in situations where I was supposed to speak for an hour, and my presentation ended up only lasting 40 minutes, which put me in a situation where I was faced with audience questions for 20 minutes. It’s important to dial in your timing so you have a more reasonable amount of time to answer questions (such as five or 10 minutes).

I hope these tips help you tackle difficult audience questions you may face in the future.

If you’re interested in learning more about Impactful Communication, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Wade Paterson is an award-winning Toastmaster who is passionate about Impactful Communication.

His columns and accompanying YouTube videos are focused on helping others become more confident public speakers and communicators.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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