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6 Mistakes to Avoid When Answering Questions
by Gilda Bonanno

How do you handle the questions that come up during or after your presentation?  

Handled effectively, questions can be an important part of your presentation, allowing you to clarify a point, expand on your ideas or provide another example.  They also can demonstrate that the audience members were paying attention to you and are interested in your opinion.  Handled poorly, however, questions can expose your lack of preparation, disconnect you from your audience and derail your presentation.     

Here are six mistakes to AVOID when you are answering questions: 


1)    Forgetting that you're still "on stage" when answering questions.  The presentation is not over until every member of the audience has left the room.  Answering questions is not the time for you to lose focus or let your energy level drop.  Your words and your non-verbal communication (voice, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and movement) should demonstrate that you are listening to the question, eager to answer and respectful of the questioner.  


2)    Letting questions take you completely off topic.  While you want to be respectful of the questioners and answer as many questions as possible, be careful not to answer so many questions early on in your presentation that you run out of time to handle your planned material.  


I once saw a speaker answer so many basic questions about her topic (most of which were irrelevant to everyone else in the audience) that she didn't get through half of her material, leaving the audience disappointed and frustrated.  


Don't be afraid to say "let's handle that question off-line" or "in the interest of time, I don't want to go into great detail on that topic, but here's a quick answer." You can also make it clear at the start that the audience should hold all questions until the end.  (If it happens to be one of the company's executives who is taking you off topic, the meeting facilitator should step in to help get you back on track.)  


3)    Being unprepared for questions.  When you give a presentation, expect questions and prepare for them with the same diligence and care that you use to prepare the presentation itself.  Put yourself in your audience's shoes and think of possible questions they might ask.  You can also practice your presentation in front of others and have them come up with likely questions. 


4)    Bluffing or lying when you don't know the answer.  Not only is it unethical, but it's unwise, because you'll get caught and you'll lose your credibility.  If you don't know the answer, don't bluff or guess.  Instead, admit that you don't know and if it's important enough, say, "I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you.” Then do it.   


5)    Not restating the question.  It's important that you restate the question in your own words before you answer it to ensure that you understood it correctly and that everyone in the audience can hear it.  It also gives you time to think of an answer.  And in the case of those long-winded comments-as-questions, restating the question succinctly makes it clear to everyone which elements you are going to focus on and answer.


6)    Getting into a fight with a hostile questioner.  If you get a clearly hostile question, keep your answer brief, direct it to the entire audience and when you're done, move your eye contact away from that questioner.  It's not usually a good idea to attack the questioner head-on because it's difficult to win those exchanges, it can distract you from your topic and you risk turning the audience against you.


If you avoid these six mistakes, you'll be better able to handle questions with confidence and ease – and deliver an effective presentation.

Gilda Bonanno is a speaker, trainer and coach who helps people from all walks of life improve their communication and presentation skills.

Copyright (c) 2009

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