6 Ways to Handle Difficult Questions from an Audience

Ed Darling
7 min read

What you’ll learn:

  • Staying calm when people start firing questions.
  • The best ways to prepare, listen and stay present.
  • How to respond to questions you can’t answer.
handle difficult questions

Handling difficult questions.

Delivering a presentation can be nerve-wrecking, but to handle difficult questions in the Q&A afterwards can be even more stressful.

Responding effectively to audience questions requires a mixture of quick-thinking, clear articulation, and self-confidence.

Whenever a question is asked, there is a moment of either opportunity or disappointment.

For the unprepared speaker, an audience question can lead to confusion, panic or even paralysis. But with the right preparation and strategy, you can handle challenging inquiries with confidence.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the best tools, tactics and mindsets for Q&A success.

Ready to get started?

Let’s take the first question. 

Anticipate questions and prepare your thoughts.

Why do lawyers and politicians appear so confident with their rebuttals?

No matter how hostile the situation, they seem able to handle difficult questions with unwavering self-confidence. Part of this comes from experience in the job, but it’s also the result of detailed preperation.

Before any speech, debate or interview, they think carefully about their audience, their arguments and their talking points.

  • What do the audience care about?
  • Where do they agree or disagree?
  • How can I handle points of contention?

Anticipating questions allows them to practise their responses beforehand. They have an array of facts, figures or soundbites ready to be deployed. By understanding the potential counter-arguments better than their audience, they stay one step ahead.

Your typical Q&A session is unlikely to have the same level of high-stakes hostility. 

But by preparing your thoughts beforehand in a similar way, and preparing answers in advance, you can go forward with the same self-confidence.

Listen sincerely to audience questions.

When the adrenalines pumping it’s easy to get ahead of yourself.

But being too quick to answer questions can show a lack of confidence.

It’s important to stay present and listen carefully to any questioner before jumping in to your response. Taking the time to slow things down in this way demonstrates authority, composure and a respect for your audience.

If you miss the question or get caught off-guard, you can regain composure with this process:

  1. Politely ask the audience member to repeat the question. 
  2. Maintain strong but sincere eye-contact and listen carefully to the words they use.
  3. Once they’ve finished, take a moment to pause before sharing your response.

Maintain self-awareness while you're speaking.

No matter how stressful the situation, it’s your job to stay composed.

When we start to feel flustered or defensive, a few things happen:

  • The muscles in our stomach and chest tighten.
  • Our breathing becomes shallow and fast-paced.
  • We build up tension in our facial muscles.

These bodily reactions trigger a feedback-loop of feeling even more flustered.
Avoiding this build-up requires you to maintain a level of self-awareness.
Even before the first question is asked, try to be aware of your body and breathing. When you notice your breathing quicken, conciously take a longer deep breath. If you notice tension in the body, allow it to release and relax as you breath out.
The more self-aware you can stay, the less bodily stress will acumulate, and the more composed you will feel.
Maintaing a calm demeanour will help you to inwardly feel more focused, while outwardly appearing more confident and professional to the audience.
Here’s a great example of Steve Jobs in 2007 trying to handle difficult questions from one audience member. Watch how he slows down, takes his time, and breathes deeply before giving his answer.

Be honest and transparent with your answers.

It doesn’t take a professional poker-player to spot someone bluffing.
Humans have an in-built ability to read body-language. Even the smoothest talker can only dodge questions for so long. Eventually the audience picks up on it, and consciously or otherwise begin to feel distrust.
We all know this because our own bullsh*t-detectors warn us about other people. Yet when faced with a tricky question, so many speakers still try to bluff their way through.
In a sea of fibbers, swim against the tide and speak with radical honesty.
If you get hit with a curve-ball question, or simply don’t know the answer to something, there are a number of effective responses:

  • Let the audience know you’ll research the answer and get back to them.
  • Ask them to follow up with you afterwards to discuss the point in more detail.
  • Turn the question around and ask them for their ideas and input.

It takes more confidence to admit your uncertainties than to hide them. Your audience understand this, and will appreciate an honest answer over a hazy half-truth.
Keep your integrity and by answering transparently.

Stay coherent by following a framework.

The phrase “off the cuff” originates from dinner speakers who would literally write notes on the cuff of their sleeves.

It appeared to the rest of the room that their thoughts were spontaneous, when they were actually using tiny bullet-points to stay on track.

We can use a similar strategy to ensure success when answering questions from the audience. By having simple frameworks around which to contruct our answers, it makes the job of speaking “off the cuff” that much easier.

Here’s a few examples you can steal:

Past-Present-Future: Here’s what we used to do, here’s how things work now, and here’s what we envision for the future.

Negative-Positive-Negative: One upside of this is A, a potential downside is B, but overall we believe the outcome will be positive because of C.

Problem-Solution: The main problem as I see it is A, the best solution for this is B.

These frameworks are particularly effective when they use the power of three.

For a more in-depth answer, try the SOAR method (Situation, Obstacle, Action, Result): The situation we found ourselves in at the time was A, the main obstacle stopping us moving forwards was B. We thought it through and decided to take action C. The result of which was D.

Having a framework in mind means it takes less brain-power to contruct a coherent out answer.

You can simply take an idea and begin expressing your spontaneous train of thought, and because it’s build around a framework, your answer will be structured and engaging.

Reframe or expand the question.

Questions can be framed in a way that make them difficult to answer.
The most obvious example is getting asked a strictly yes/no question, when you might believe there is a third option to consider.
One of the most charismatic things a speaker can do is to reframe the question in a new light. By doing this, they let the audience see things in a new perspective, and consider the question from a different angle.
In order to succesfully reframe a question, It’s essential to understand the context behind the question. You need to know where the questioner is coming from, and why they are asking the question is that specific way.
Then you need to explain why you see things differently.
Using a story or metaphor can be useful in such cases to help translate your point of view.

Politicians are famous for never answering a questions with a closed yes/no framing. Instead, they will usually rephrase the asked question into a question they prefer to answer and then answer that instead.

Evasive tactics don’t usually win hearts and minds however, so it’s best to only reframe the question when you genuinely view things from a different angle

Watch Carl Sagan answer the loaded question “so what?” (40 seconds in) with poise, flair, and insight.

However you handle difficult questions, always...

When you’ve prepared beforehand, know how to stay calm, and have frame-works ready to go, there’s no reason to fear the Q&A section.

In fact, it can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience to communicate live with your audience.

Using the methods below can help you to feel calm and collected during any presentation, speech or interview. But whichever question technique you decide to use, always remember the golden rule: actually answer the question.

It seems obvious, but you’ll gain no points by meandering around the issue or trying too hard to be clever. Remember that it’s good practise to speak clearly and be concise.

However, If you do need to explain in detail, check back with your audience to ensure they feel they’ve been heard and answered.

To handle difficult questions takes practise. The more exposure you get, the more you’ll learn to thrive in the Q&A.

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