9 Tips for Handling Tough Questions During that Exec Presentation

You have an upcoming executive presentation. People in the room will develop opinions about you and your ideas based on your PowerPoint slides, which you have carefully prepared, and your presentation skills, which you have refined over the years . They will also judge you by how you answer questions, which is more difficult to prepare for and can hurt your credibility if handled poorly, or enhance it if handled well.

Some people fear questions during their presentation. But questions should not be feared; they should be anticipated, embraced and encouraged. Questions usually mean the audience is interested. When a presentation ends and the speaker asks “any questions”, flat silence is a sure sign the audience lost interest long ago.

So, here are 9 tips for handling tough questions to enhance your credibility:

1. Ask to hold questions until the end if possible, rather than allowing questions to interrupt throughout your presentation. You want people to follow your argument in the order you’ve planned it and constant interruptions will break up the flow of your presentation and muddy the line of reasoning. Thorny debates can completely derail your presentation. Holding questions until the end is most appropriate if you’re presenting to a large group than in a meeting room with a few colleagues.

2. Within 5 minutes, invite questions from higher ranking executives. Say “have we captured your definition of success?” or “do you agree with the segmentation strategy?”. Execs are impatient and see the weaknesses in your presentation early and are chomping at the bit to ask questions. It makes you look in control of the meeting if you invite those questions yourself rather than having the exec interrupt you.

3. When answering a question, use it as a chance to repeat your main argument. For instance, if your argument includes “students are our next growth opportunity” and someone asks ‘in which countries was the research conducted?” don’t answer “US, UK and Japan”. Instead, say “US, UK and Japan because they have significant student populations where the growth opportunity is the greatest.” Constantly repeating your main message makes it stick in the audience’s mind.

4. Do not flatter the questioner by saying “great question!” You will set up an adversarial atmosphere where others in the room feel their questions were not great. If their boss is also in the room they will try to save face or otherwise jockey for position by trying to ask even better questions. Instead, say things like “I’m glad you asked that” or “that goes back to my main point about…” but don’t use words that grade their questions.

5. Reverse the question to find out how to sell your ideas. For instance, if the exec asks how you plan to reach the student audience you can either answer them directly, or reverse the question and say “What are your thoughts on how we should reach them?”. Sales people use this trick. When a customer asks “what color does it come in?” a smart sales person can learn what is important to the customer, and how to close the sale, by reversing the question: “what color did you want?”.

6. Never try to embarrass the questioner. No matter how tempting it is; no matter how big a target they give you by asking a foolish question, avoid a hurtful answer. They will take their resentment out by withdrawing their support or actively discrediting you behind your back and sabotaging your idea. Even answering someone’s question with “we already covered that” can bruise the ego. Always treat each question with exquisite respect or you will make an enemy and make the job of selling your idea harder.

7. Defend the idea, not yourself. There are some people who will ask questions to try to discredit you and replace your idea with their own. They may even try to attack you personally or make snide comments like “that’s the dumbest idea I ever heard.” Don’t defend yourself personally. Instead, always focus on defending your idea. By consistently ignoring the personal jibes and always steering your answers back to your idea, you earn the sympathy of the rest of your audience. Entering into a discussion about your credentials and experience and personal virtues makes people less sympathetic toward you.

8. Raise hot objections proactively. If you know some of the attendees are opposed to your ideas and are likely to raise questions to try to discredit you, raise the objection yourself. Say, “John, I know you may not agree with the new price list. I know your belief is that we are losing too many customers, but the pricing team’s feeling is that we are capturing the most profitable customers.” By stating the objection yourself, you present it in an objective way and avoid John’s emotional phrasing that could bias the rest of the group against you. You also increase your chances of winning John over later because you acknowledged and showed respect for his concerns.

9. Pause a full 10 seconds after you ask “Are there any other questions?” at the end of the meeting.  This seems like a long time, but leave that pregnant pause to hang in the air so people know you are serious and want someone to fill it. Don’t ask the question and then give up after three seconds. Even after you ask for any last questions, they may stall. Leave a long enough pause and any questions that surface are clearly still burning in someone’s heart.

Handling questions well can help to enhance your credibility and is critical to a successful business presentation. For other suggestions about handling questions, check out Moving Mountains by Henry Boettinger and In the Line of Fire by Jerry Weissman.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.