Dealing with questions during a Presentation.

Roger is a highly experienced product manager in a multinational company in Europe. Last week, he was making a PowerPoint sales presentation to the management committee of a potential client who appeared to be very interested in his product. He felt that he had prepared the presentation to perfection and had high hopes of convincing the client to sign a contract. Soon after starting his presentation, one of the client’s team asked Roger a question which was answered in the following slide. However, not wanting to offend the questioner, Roger gave him a brief yet concise answer, but to his amazement, his boss jumped in to “clarify” his response and then another of the client’s team asked the boss a question about his response while another member of the client’s team started arguing with a companion and things went downhill from there.
Roger, for all his experience in presentations, was at a loss about what to do: shut up and leave them to it or try to elegantly take control of the situation. Finally, using verbal man-management techniques such as “echoic responses” and various non-verbal techniques he was able to get the group back “on-task” and focussed on his presentation. He did, however, tell the audience that he was sure that he had anticipated most of their questions and included the answers in his presentation and then ask everyone to write down their questions and promised to answer all of them at the end of the presentation. He informed the audience that this was to ensure that they finished in the allotted time as he knew that they were busy people. From that moment onwards, things went more smoothly. Roger decided that this was the last time that this would happen!

Points to remember;
– In this article, we are assuming that the presenter has really done their homework and knows in detail the Needs, Wants and Lacks of the audience and their organization.

– Not everyone is equal in a presentation. There are “Powers”, “Influencers” and “Hot bodies”. The “Power(s)” matter the most, then the “Influencers”. The “Hot Bodies” are often there just to fill the room and usually have NO say in the final decision.

– Some people have hidden agendas and will see a presentation as an opportunity to show how much they know or score points with bosses, etc. and the best way to do this is to ask questions either to the presenter or other audience members.

– If you accept, and answer, a question during the presentation, whether it is relevant or not, you are setting a subconscious precedent for more interruptions.

– If people have the opportunity to ask questions, many will focus on their own specific interests or worries that might not be shared by other members of the audience.

– Answering a question is often interpreted as a presenter’s way to initiate a dialogue with the audience (in linguistics this is known as “turn taking”: you ask me a question, I answer you and look at you and this can be interpreted as “I expect you to continue” so the original questioner does so).

– Answering questions and entering into dialogues often leads to a deviation from the topic & this, in turn, may often lead to boredom and disconnection for the rest of the audience.

– The time used to deal with questions consumes the time available for the presentation. Most Decision-makers are normally busy people and have heavy schedules so wasting their time is generally not appreciated!

– By postponing questions, you are showing that you are different from other presenters because you have the confidence & skills necessary to clearly present what the audience Needs, Wants and Lacks in a clear, structured and elegant manner and the ability to answer their questions when they have seen the entire presentation.

– Many presenters do not expect questions during their presentations and when they occur they are unsure about how to respond appropriately which frequently results in them having a “mental block” which impedes them from giving the correct answer or makes them waffle on without actually answering the question. A worse case scenario is when the presenter give an incorrect or inappropriate answer.

– Answering questions can often lead to a loss of control of the presentation by the presenter as indicated in the situation at the beginning of this article.

We recommend that In order to be able to legitimately ask for questions to be held until the end. All, or most of, the following conditions be met. The presenter:

– is giving a business presentations of 30 minutes duration or less (e.g. 15-20 minute presentation followed by a period of question time). Note: many international organizations are now limiting internal presentations to 10 minutes or 10 slides!

– is providing a presentation that is intended to communicate specific information to the audience in the most direct, concise and economic way possible.

– has done their homework, clearly understands the right message to be delivered in order to meet the audience’s need2, wants and lacks.

Interactive questioning directed by the presenter, discussions, and other more participative activies can be useful in the following situations:
– where the presenter cannot meet the criteria listed above.

– when longer presentations are conducted (‘meeting with slides’). These usually consist of a massive deck of PowerPoint slides which are usually data or text-based and read aloud by the presenter to the audience. for more information please follow this link:

– when the presenter reads the audience’s non-verbal communication and determines that there is unrest or dissonance with the message, and it becomes important to determine the cause, rather than have the rest of the message lost because simple misunderstandings are not addressed; and

– when other types of “presentation” are being delivered (e.g. a longer lecture, workshop, etc.) which obviously should be the most interactive possible.

– Ensure that you know the Needs, Wants and Lacks of the client in THIS presentation.
– Identify the “Power(s)”, “Influencers” and “Hot bodies”.
– Anticipate possible questions from the “Powers” and “Influencers”.
– Incorporate the answer to these questions in the development of the presentation. Rhetorical questions are extremely useful as ways to get the audience to participate mentally without interrupting the presenter and the flow of the presentation. They also “personalize” the presentation by providing the presenter with the opportunity to show their knowledge of the problems / worries of the audience in a controlled manner.

At the very beginning of the Presentation:
– Inform the audience that you believe that you have anticipated possible questions and have incorporated the answers into the presentation so that the answers are given within a specific context.
– Ask the audience to make a note of their questions and that at the end of the presentation, you promise to answer all of them. We recommend using a phrase like: “We know that you are very busy people so I would appreciate it if you could keep all you questions until the end of the presentation. In this way, we won’t get sidetracked and we’ll finish on-time”.

With this structure we are using both the Primacy effect and the Recency effect to influence our audience. (Primacy: recognizing that they are “busy people”. Recency: “not side-tracked …finish on time”).

When you get asked a question, we suggest the following verbal responses in conjunction with the appropriate non-verbal communication using posture, gaze, orientation, proximity and gestures:

1. Congratulate the questioner:
By using one of the following types of “social markers” you are showing respect to both the person asking the question and the question itself.

Examples of possible social markers:
“That’s a very interesting question…”
“Thank you for that question…”
“That is an excellent question.”

2. Link with a coordinating conjunction: NOT “BUT” use however, nevertheless, etc.
It is important to avoid the use of the word “but” as it devalues everything that precedes it. Use the recommended alternatives.

3. Postpone the answer:
It is vital to postpone the answer to ensure that your response is correct. Remember… If you say something during the presentation it is believed to be correct. If you incorrectly answer a question, it is very difficult to change the response later!

Possible alternatives that can be used to postpone the answer are:

– “I am going to talk about this in detail in the next slide. So if you don’t mind waiting…?”
– “We are going to look at this area in two minutes. So you’ll see the answer in context.”
– “We will examine this in detail later in the presentation and all your questions will be answered then.”
“We will discuss this in depth at the end of the presentation as it is a complex topic and requires time.”

4. ALWAYS, ALWAYS,ALWAYS, Comply with (3):
Always answer when you said you would. This postponement give the presenter time to collect their thoughts, consider what is the most relevant response and how to incorporate it into the presentation at the appropriate time.

If you have asked audience members to hold their questions until the end, make sure that you ask the people who indicated that they had questions are asked what their postponed question was.

NEVER answer a question immediately, ALWAYS postpone it.

Many people are afraid to postpone questions in a presentation because of a fear of offending the audience. This seems to be a cultural phenomenon and certain nationalities appear to be more concerned with political correctness and less with ensuring the efficacy of their communication. However, what is worse, asking for questions at the end of the presentation or having a group of busy top level decision-makers involved in a Question and Answer session DURING the presentation which extends it’s duration and possibly wastes their valuable time?

Consider your answer to the following questions:
1. If there is a discussion between audience members or with the presenter, what does the politically correct presenter do?
2. If the presenter has 30 minutes to make their presentation, will answering questions during the presentation help them finish on time?
3. What is more important, keeping the whole audience happy or only one person?
4. Does the presenter answer a question immediately when asked even when the answer is actually covered in detail later on in the presentation or do they postpone the response?
5. Generally, how important is it for the audience to see the whole presentation before they ask questions?

The purpose of this article is to propose that presenters consider a new way of dealing with questions that ensures that they achieve their communicative objective in the most elegant and professional manner possible bearing in mind the time restraints imposed by the organization.

© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., Madrid, Spain. 24th March 2014


About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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3 Responses to Dealing with questions during a Presentation.

  1. Interesting and engaging post. Each point you made is noteworthy. thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your post.

  2. Edward Fuller says:

    Hi Ian: Very interesting approach. This is what we teach in our programs. Bottom line “only you (the presenter) can control the meeting”

  3. Pingback: “An elephant in the Room” # 3 : Avoiding Unacceptable Behaviour in Presentations. | ianbrownlee

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