3 steps to handle tough questions from your audience

Answering difficult questions - Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash
Answering difficult questions – Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

What is the one thing you dread when leading a workshop, presenting a pitch or wrapping up a negotiation? It’s not knowing what to say when you are asked a tough question, isn’t it?

When I started in training 20 years ago, I remember the one thing kept me awake at nights. It was my fear of not being able to handle unexpected questions from my clients or audience.

Being challenged by our audience is only natural when we present them with new information or ask them to do things they don’t yet understand. Why are so many of us unprepared?

Victor’s Story

Let me tell you a brief story about a client of mine. Victor was from the Bio Pharma Ops division of a major European Pharmaceutical company.

As a Senior Researcher, Victor knew his stuff! As I worked with him, I confirmed that designing and delivering presentations was not a problem for him.

But the inevitable Q&A was. He was terrified about what to say and how much to say when thrown unexpected questions.  I completely understand that. Is this how you feel too?

Not anticipating questions

Perhaps you freeze up and can’t think of an answer. Or perhaps you just speak without thinking and give the wrong answer. The result’s the same.

You walk out slapping your forehead, wondering why you said what you did, or lamenting what you didn’t say.

I’ve seen this many times running presentation skills and communication skills workshops with corporate clients across Asia and the Middle East (15 countries and counting). 

When I ask someone to present to me on a subject of their choice. It usually goes very well. The speaker has spent hours refining the message.

The slides are great. The presenter looks comfortable… until someone asks them a question which they hadn’t anticipated. That’s often when things fall apart.

Answers build credibility

As professional trainers and facilitators, we are experts in delivering material because we usually know our material inside out.

But real expertise is not about delivering the materials that can be planned, prepared and practiced. That’s the easy part. 

Real expertise is being able to answer questions in the moment when you don’t know exactly what someone is going to ask you. That’s the part that impresses the most.

Think about it. Whom would you rather believe, or listen to? The person who knows what to tell you.. or the person who knows how to answer you? (Exactly)

Your ability to handle questions well, builds credibility, confidence and connection.

Professionals spend their time preparing for questions they hope their audience will ask…

Roshini Ganesan – Communication Skills Trainer

Professionals want to be asked

Amateurs spend an inordinate amount of time preparing what they want to say and how they’re going to say it.

They focus on their message and slides and leave a minimum amount of time preparing for questions they hope their listeners won’t ask.

It should be the other way around.

Professionals start with what the audience want to learn, design their message around that, then spend the bulk of their time preparing for questions they hope their listeners will ask.

Even then you may not be able to answer every question.

Some questions are going to surprise you. So if you do get a question that is a curve ball, here are three steps to handle them

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Some Questions are going to surprise you – Photo by Rohit Farmer on Unsplash

3 steps to handle tough questions

  1. Pause
  2. Process
  3. Present

1. Pause

Have you heard of the “amygdala hijack”?  The amygdala is the part of the brain that perceives a threat and initiates the three primal responses of fight, flight or freeze.

  • You avoid the question (flight response)
  • You go blank (freeze response)
  • You challenge the person who has asked the question (fight response)

What you really need to do is to PAUSE.  You just need to buy time to allow your pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of your brain) to rationalise and construct an appropriate answer.

Research shows that pausing for as few as 6 seconds can make a difference to your ability to answer a question properly – Roshini Ganesan TWEET THIS

Pausing takes only a few seconds according to the creators of The Chimp Paradox, one of the most accessible books on psychology ever-written.

The problem is that most of us feel the urge to speak immediately before our thinking brain has had a chance to do its work.

So pause for a few seconds, breathe and think. How long do you need to pause? Research shows that as few as 6 seconds can make a difference.

If you need to, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask the speaker to clarify (or repeat) the question.

You could ask them for an example which will buy you time (usually more than 6 seconds!).

There are several benefits to this approach: 

  • You give yourself time to think about what exactly you want to say
  • You get clarity about what (and why) the questioner really is asking
  • You answer the right question with the right answer

2. Process

Your pause enables your brain to get ready for step 2 which is processing. Your brain can now begin to process words, body language, context and dozens of others signals from the room.

  • You can focus on the motivation behind the question
  • You can seek more information from the speaker
  • You can prepare the best possible answer

Is the question related to a fear or concern? Do they need evidence or proof? Do they need assurance on quality, durability, efficacy or something else?

This process phase also allows you to ask the speaker clarification questions so you can gather more information to give them the best possible answer.

Your brain is a bio-computer. Allow it to process the data it has – Roshini Ganesan TWEET THIS

If someone were to ask you “Why should I choose you over the competition? Your product is priced at a premium”, you would first pause, then process mentally what’s being asked.

  • You could inquire how they are comparing you against the competition.
  • You could clarify which aspect of the product is premium
  • You could prepare an answer that addresses price specifically.

With answers to these questions, you can ensure that what comes out of your mouth makes sense. Allowing time to pause and process will ensure clarity.  

Too often, when asked a question under pressure, all the information we have is in a chaotic jumble in the brain. Your brain is a bio-computer. Allow it to process the data it has.

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Present your best answer – Photo by Product School on Unsplash

2. Present

You paused. You used the time to seek clarification and process the right information. Great! You are now ready to present your best answer.

As you read this, you might think the this all sounds rather slow. In fact, it’s a matter of seconds. Time moves more slowly in your mind that it does for the audience.

WATCH: Take a moment to watch Steve Jobs pause, slow down and process when he is asked a difficult and unexpected question.

Only when Steve had completely processed what he wanted to say was he in a position to present his famous answer.

But the last thing that Steve or you wants to do is to say everything you process. Professionals know that short responses are the best responses.

Keep responses short

Back to the question your speaker asked: Why should I choose you over the competition? Your product is priced at a premium”.

If you give your speaker too many answers or too much information, you potentially create some problems:

  • You confuse them
  • You give them irrelevant information
  • You generate more questions

So 7 reasons are too many.
1 reason may not be enough to convince them
But 3 is a nice easy-to-remember number

Follow the rule of three

So if you put this into practice, you could try something like these to answer the speaker’s question.

  • “Here are three things our price covers…”
  • Three things makes us different Content, Materials and Service…”
  • “Let me share three problems this programme will solve for you…”

There will be times when you need to and want to answer a question directly or there will be times when you can only think of 2 points and that’s fine.

But once you have given your answer(s), then you stop talking.

If you keep talking, you bury your message and might actually raise more questions than you have answered!


Learn to embrace questions from people in meetings, presentations and workshops. Handling them well builds credibility and can help you get what you want.

When People ask you questions it’s because they really think you know the answer.  And very often you do.

In fact, it is rare to get a question you have absolutely no knowledge on how to answer.

But if you do get a tough question, just remember to pause, allow your brain to process then present with confidence.

This takes practice (just like any other skill), so practice in safe environments with friends, family and at events run by organizations like Toastmasters.  

LEARN MORE: Get 7 tips to improve your public speaking by joining Toastmasters

Oh…and Remember Victor?  A few weeks after he completed my workshop, he delivered a new business idea to his bosses and absolutely nailed the Q&A session!

Pausing, and NOT jumping in too quickly with a response, allowed him to process questions and present his answers clearly, briefly and to the point.  Nice work!

What are your thoughts on how people can answer questions confidently?

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