How to handle challenging questions when giving a presentation
Most people hate giving presentations. Public Speaking is humanity’s number one fear. So they imagine everyone in the audience in their underwear and . . . that doesn’t work. That’s why people rush through their presentations as quickly as possible and exist stage left. They’re just glad to have the ordeal over.
In most people’s minds, the only thing worse than giving a presentation is giving a presentation and having someone in the audience push back on a point or points you’ve made. Immediately, you go into brain hijack—fight-or-flight syndrome.
Our brains evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with saber-tooth tigers and other imminent dangers. The number one priority for the early human mind was to look out for anything that might harm you—and kill it or run from it in the opposite direction.
Your heart races.
Your blood pressure spikes.
Your pupils dilate.
Your blood rushes to your extremities to foster escape or battle.
Basically, all bodily systems are working to keep you alive in what you’ve perceived as a dangerous situation.
Not me, though.
Believe it or not, I actually welcome pushback when I’m giving a presentation. Challenging questions. Skepticism. The leaders I train across the country in the art of presentation are amazed when I tell them that. They’re terrified of the prospect of pushback. They’re thinking, I’ll survive as long as there are no hard questions!
To me, questions are awesome because they show the presentation is actually a conversation. It shows that your audience is engaged with what you’re saying. You’re making an impact!
Would you like to get to the point of welcoming pushback during your presentation? Well, good, because that’s what this post is about. We’ll look at different ways that you can modify your mindset before and during the presentation so that you engage with your audience with confidence.
Ready? Let’s go.
Reframe your thoughts about the person asking the question
As is the case with most human endeavors, your attitude is critical to your success. In the case of pushback during a presentation, you’ve got to decide on a particular mindset. To wit: The person pushing back is not your adversary. He/she is an engaged learner.
And that’s exactly what you want! He/she is paying attention! They are processing your words and cogitating on how it will affect them/the company. They’re thinking, “But what about . . .?”
Believe me, that's much preferred to the alternative: an audience who has checked out. They’re pretending to take notes, but you can tell from their body language they’ve checked out. You even see a couple of people on their smartphones. You’re not going to make an impact that way.
Assume good intent
An engaged learner is actually on your side. You’re both trying to see how the issue at hand can make things better personally or professionally. So, make sure you assume good intent on their part.
Do not fall for the trap of taking pushback personally. It has nothing to do with you! Your topic is what is provoking a response. By remembering this, you can stay objective and stay in the conversation rather than getting into a conflict.
As you go through your presentation, try to keep yourself grounded on the belief that you and the audience are in cooperation with one another.
Honor the questions and the person
Don’t push back on the pushback. Back in 2018, Telsa CEO Elon Musk was asked a question on capital expenditures from a financial analyst on an earnings call. Musk responded, “Excuse me. Next. Boring, bonehead questions are not cool.”
Instead, when an audience member engages with you by questioning someone thing you’ve said, show them that you appreciate them and you welcome the opportunity to dig deeper—something like “You bring up a really good point. Let’s talk about that.”
(If you're interested in seeing another example from a CEO, check out this YouTube video of Steve Jobs responding to an insult from the audience. Say what you will about him, in this instance, he handled pushback brilliantly.)
The best presentations are a conversation, not a lecture.
Ask clarifying questions to make sure you’re understanding what their question/concern is—“When you say X, can you explain a little bit what you mean—maybe give an example?”
Remember to try to stay in the moment. Slow down and dive in. Don't let your nerves overcome your curiosity.
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”
Impostor Syndrome is so common in today’s workplace. I’m no expert! Why’d they ask me to give this presentation? Everyone’s going to see that I don’t know what I’m talking about!
It doesn’t do any good to beat yourself up. Think about it. Nobody knows everything about everything. You’re just uninformed, not stupid.
If someone in the audience asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, thank them. And if you’re presenting to an executive audience, it’s almost certain someone going to bring up something you hadn’t thought of. It's part of their job.
Don’t get defensive. Don’t blame.
Say, “Thanks for bringing it up. I don't know. And if it concerns you, there are probably others here who had the same thought.”
Acknowledge your ignorance on this particular point. Let them know you’ll do some research and get back to them—or even better, open it up to everyone, something like, “Does anyone have any insight into this? I'd love to hear from you.” Authenticity is vital. If you try to dodge the answer or make something up, your audience will know. And you will lose all credibility.
Assume you’ll get pushback, so be prepared
As I said, pushback shows that people are engaged. When you’re preparing your presentation ask yourself, “Will the audience be
resistant to what I have to say or will they support it?” This will help you stay calm when a question does arrive during your presentation.
Brainstorm. Come up with what some of the likely areas of pushback will be. Familiarize yourself with alternate lines of reasoning by digging up articles, blog posts, and reports that challenge your stance. This kind of research will prepare you for skeptical questions and comments—and it'll help you develop a deeper understanding of the topic and a more nuanced point of view. You can then address those concerns in your presentation before the pushback even happens.
Learning how to handle pushback as a presenter is one of the most important presentation skill you can learn. Why? Because it takes a source of fear for most people and turns it into joy. Deftly handling pushback can be transformational as a presenter. Instead of seeing the questioner aiming his/her spear at you, think of them handing you a bouquet of flowers. You’ll find—believe it or not—that you actually look forward to the questions.
Want more tips? Check out NobleEdge’s The Art of Skilled Presentations training. For groups and individuals, this interactive presentation skills training brings together theatre arts and human psychology to reduce anxiety, build confidence and move your audience to action.
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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and skills to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.