Answering questions

First of all it’s useful to know that most people, and many accomplished speakers, find question time a bit daunting. It’s not just you! One of the reasons people find it scary is that it’s unpredictable. With your presentation you can prepare and you know what you will say. But with questions you have less idea of what will arise. You are a bit more at the mercy of the audience. However you can still prepare.

Here are a range of strategies.

Prepare for the obvious questions

In reality, question time should not really be about the audience checking out your specific knowledge, for example, name the planets in the correct order. Usually it is for general questions about your approach, clarifying your reasons for particular decisions and raising other approaches. So you don’t have to know every fact in the universe and you can predict some of the obvious questions.

Imagine you were part of the audience. What questions would pop into your head? Get a friend to listen to your talk and then ask them what questions they can think of. Because you know the topic well (hopefully) you should be able to identify the more obvious questions.

Then try a bit harder to imagine the less obvious questions. Imagine the different types of people at your talk. What specific interests might they have? What matters to them?

Obviously, once you’ve identified the questions you need to prepare plausible answers.

If you can’t think of an answer

Sometimes, especially when you’re under pressure, your mind will go blank. It happens to all presenters. You might not be able to recall some fairly simple piece of information. You can say:

  • “My mind’s gone blank on that issue. Come and see me afterwards.”
  • “I can’t remember the details at the moment. Can anyone else help?”

If you don’t know

One choice is to simply admit that you do not know the answer. For example:

  • “I don’t have an answer for that question. If you come up and see me afterwards we can talk about it.”
  • “That’s a very interesting question. I don’t have the answer off the top of my head but I’m happy to discuss it with you afterwards.”

Questions outside the scope of your presentation

Nobody knows the answer to every question so there will be some that you can’t answer. Here are some responses:

  • “That’s a great question but that was beyond the scope of our project/topic.”
  • “Thanks for that question. It’s a great suggestion and that could be a topic for future work.”
  • “My focus in this presentation was …”

Buying thinking time

One of the problems with question time is that you don’t have much time to think of a clever response. (This is made worse of course by 80% of your brain cells being consumed by anxiety.) So here are some ways to buy some time.

Repeat the question. You can say:

  • “Thanks for that. So your question is [insert question].
  • “I’ll just repeat that so everyone else can hear it.”
  • “So just to clarify, your question is …”

Hopefully while you are saying that, something clever (or even anything at all!) pops into your head.

You can also use the audience for help.

For example:

  • “So the question is [insert question]. What do others think?”

Once again while you are waiting, hopefully you can think of a response. You could even return the question to the questioner!

  • “That’s an interesting point. Do you have any thoughts yourself about …”




So while question-time might not become fun for you there are strategies you can use to make it less daunting.

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