Handling difficult questions

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


For the prepared speaker, answering a difficult question is just a matter of structuring the response. 


But for the unprepared speaker, a difficult question can lead to confusion, panic, and even paralysis.


Uncertainty is what stops most people from ever taking a speaking opportunity. 


  • “What should I write?”


  • “What should I say?”


  • What if I forget my lines? 


And once a speaker has written and rehearsed their talk, the uncertainty doesn’t end. 


The dreaded Q&A session is a fresh attack on the nerves, especially for anyone who typically chooses to avoid conflict.


Don’t believe me? Watch any Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank episode and let me know which part makes you feel most anxious.


But what can you do? 


You don’t know what your audience will ask, and you need to be prepared and answer with confidence; otherwise, you’ll lose credibility. 


In this article, I will share six effective ways to handle difficult questions during a presentation. 


You’ll learn: 


  • A strategic way to prepare for your Q&A that top debaters, lawyers, and politicians use to win any argument.


  • A bold mindset that will make you look forward to dealing with tough questions from the stage.


  • Three things you should do before launching into your answer.


  • How to prepare a response in real-time that makes it seem like you knew they would ask that exact question. 


  • What to do if your mind goes completely blank – this has gotten me out of a few tricky situations. 


  • How to reframe a question and pivot back to your message, so you stay on point at all times. 


Want to know more? Great, read on.

Take our free Stage Ready Speaker
test to score your confidence, content and charisma as a speaker...

The best defence is a good offence

Did you ever wonder why lawyers, politicians, and expert debaters are so good at rebuttals and comebacks when engaged in fierce debates? 

The secret is quite simple. Good speakers will always think of their audience first, and when your audience is potentially hostile or opposed to your message, you must know their side of the argument better than they do. 

Once you know your core message, don’t waste time rehearsing the same lines over and over. Instead, spend time understanding the weaknesses in your arguments or persuasion points, and find terrific solutions to the problems you find. 

If you know that your numbers don’t add up, spend time working on them until they do. 

If you deliver your presentation to your wife who doesn’t get it, think of better stories and metaphors to deliver your message. 

Attack your content before your audience can, and you will forge inner steel that can withstand attacks later.

Learn to love surprises

The majority of speakers fear answering questions because they feel they won’t give a good enough response. 


From this day forward, quit being someone who hates to hear problems and start embracing them. 

If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, thank them for pointing out something you hadn’t considered and telling them it will help you research the topic even further. 

 If you change your mindset about situations you can’t control, you will learn to love surprises and deal with problems. 

 You will become unshakable in your resolve to find the truth, even if it means admitting your arguments are not perfect.

 Be like a scientist and stay curious.

Before you speak, do these three things

You’ve just been hit with a cruel cross-examining from an audience member and start to feel wobbled. You weren’t expecting this question and haven’t prepared for it. You feel the blood rise and the palms go sweaty. 

Don’t panic.

This situation calls for composure. So here’s how to handle the hit and come back like a cannonball. 

First, ask the audience member to repeat the question while taking a sip of water or allowing them to begin. 

When the audience member begins to speak, make strong but sincere eye contact with them and listen intently to the question and the words they use. 

By asking the audience member to repeat their question, you gain:

  1. A few extra moments to compose yourself and breathe.
  2. Control over the situation by asking them to repeat the question. 
  3. The chance to hone in on their actual words and become present. 

These three aspects will give you a renewed vigour and make it seem like you genuinely want to understand them. 

When you make your response, try to use as many of the words they used to build rapport with them. 

You might win the interrogator over to your side, but if not, you’ll almost certainly have a better chance of responding calmly.

A winning formula to speak off-the-cuff with confidence

Do you know where the term ‘off the cuff’ originates? 

Dinner speakers used to write their notes on their cuffs and make it seem as if they were speaking extemporaneously, when in fact, they had it all written down in bullet points. 

Why make things hard for yourself? Have a structure for every response you give. 

The best response you can give is one that uses the power of three. 

Respond to a question by breaking it into three parts: 

  • Before, during, and after.
  • Positive, negative, positive.
  • Beginning, middle, and end. 

Can you think of any more? 

Additionally, you can challenge yourself to deliver a Toastmasters style table topic every day and video record yourself speaking. Soon you’ll be able to talk without notes or anything written on your cuffs too.

Reframe the question and regain the upper hand

I remember watching Steve Jobs deal with an insulting remark and a challenging question from an audience member at the 1997 Worldwide Developer Conference. Take a look and see how masterfully Jobs turns an insult into an audience winning response. 

Jobs takes a perceived negative in this situation: Apple crushing and copying smaller companies, even open-source, free software. However, he doesn’t take offence to the question asked or the implication behind it. Instead, he calmly makes the audience laugh and then explains in a way they all understand. 

It’s essential to understand the question behind the question asked when you are reframing. You need first to understand exactly where the questioner is coming from: what are they asking and why? 

Politicians are famous for never answering a question with a closed answer such as “yes” or “no” or any exact figures. Instead, they will usually rephrase the asked question into a question they prefer to answer and then answer that instead. 

Politicians are not well-liked for their evasive tactics, however. A much better approach to reframing difficult questions is to instil wonder in your audience by getting them to change their frame of thinking. 

Watch Carl Sagan answer the loaded question “so what?” with poise, flair, and insight. 

The reframe is your friend. 

Take what your questioner has asked, rephrase it in your way, maybe with more of a positive direction, and then answer it while making sure it aligns with your message.

A final point

Whichever of the six ways you use to handle difficult questions during a presentation, always make sure you answer the question. It seems obvious, but you’ll gain no points by meandering around a question and using avoidance tactics. 

Be sure to check with your audience member to ensure they feel they’ve been heard and answered.

What gets measured gets managed

Be sure to record or write down every question you receive about your presentation and have an even stronger response prepared for the next time you deliver it.

Tough questions are a necessary part of many presentations. The audience has given you their time and patience, but now they want to know more. 

Many people think it’s excellent news when nobody has any questions to ask, but this means your audience might not care enough or feel challenged.

Embrace the challenge and let me know which of these six ways to handle difficult questions during a presentation you found most helpful.

Take our free Stage Ready Speaker
test to score your confidence, content and charisma as a speaker...

Project Charisma deliver online coaching and in-person courses on
confident communication, public speaking & personal development.

To overcome speaking anxiety, create a Ted style speech, or communicate with confidence,
book onto one of our public speaking courses in Manchester, or sign-up for online coaching.

6 Ways to Handle Difficult Questions During a Presentation

Danny Riley

A corporate trainer, award-winning speaker, TEDx Speaker coach, and Distinguished Toastmaster. Danny designs and delivers Leadership Development Programmes as well as coaching professional speakers. He is a Chartered Manager, a member of the CIPD, and dedicates his life to developing executives who want to deliver more persuasive pitches and presentations.
You are currently viewing 6 Ways to Handle Difficult Questions During a Presentation