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Dealing with Difficult Questions and/or Difficult Audiences

Aug 17, 2007
In most instances when you're hired to make a presentation to a group, the group will behave in a civilised manner. Being realistic however, sometimes that won't be the case. For example, you might have been hired specifically to be the bearer of bad news. Neither pleasant nor easy.

In this short article, I can't go into too much detail about how to deliver bad news to specific groups of people.

When you're delivering bad news, your audience may be understandably hostile. My experience is that they'll still probably behave in a peaceful and civil fashion. It's just that their questions might be difficult.

FOUR POINTS TO REMEMBER ABOUT QUESTIONS - EASY AND DIFFICULT

1. PLEASE TREAT YOUR AUDIENCE WITH THE RESPECT YOU'D LIKE TO HAVE SHOWN TO YOU.
Answer their questions directly and honestly. Hedging around because you feel uncomfortable just leads to 'death by a thousand cuts'. That phrase describes what you're doing if you tell outright lies or delay telling the truth in answer to difficult questions.

2. "I DON'T KNOW" IS A VERY ACCEPTABLE ANSWER TO SOME DIFFICULT QUESTIONS.
You don't have to know everything! So relax. If you're asked a question and you feel you should know the answer, please consider saying: "Thank you. That's a very interesting question. I'll have to get back to you on that, after I've spoken to _________. I'll get the answer to that back to (the organiser of the event) by Monday. Thanks again for raising that matter."

I don't think I have to say here that if you promise to get back on Monday with the information....I won't say it. You know what you have to do.

3. SET A TIME AND A TIME LIMIT FOR QUESTIONS
In any presentation it's always a good idea to set a time when the audience can ask questions. Unless it's an interactive seminar where I'm actively seeking input, I specify that there'll be time at the end of the talk for questions. It's also good to set a limit to that question time. If you're a member of a panel of speakers the Chair will do that for you. If not, just announce first up that you'll take questions for ___ minutes at the end of your presentation.

4. NEVER END YOUR PRESENTATIONS WITH A Q AND A SESSION
While it's great to keep the questions until after you've spoken, please make sure that you have the last word. Literally. When you've answered questions, be sure to end your presentation with a strong assertion of your main message(s).

DEALING WITH A DIFFICULT AUDIENCE
During your presentation, if someone or a group of people, start being disruptive you won't be the only one who'll be annoyed or upset. You can use the audience to support you in dealing with difficult members within it.

For instance, you can ask the audience if they want to listen to you or to the people being disruptive. Put that question positively: "this person/group is here today to deliver another point of view. Could I have a show of hands to indicate who wants to listen to them now instead of me?" In 99% of cases, you'll get audience support to continue.

If however the audience does want to hear the other person/group, you have nothing to lose by acceding to that. You'll have come across as a gracious and reasonable person interested in your audience.

Besides, you'd have no way to keep their attention under those circumstances, so it is preferable to allow a slight break in your presentation. In twenty years of making hundreds of public addresses, that has never happened to me.

With difficult audiences there are a limited number of things you can do. Apart from actually involving the wider audience in keeping the peace, you can:

* Politely but firmly advise the disruptive person that s/he'll have a chance to speak and ask questions later.

* Again in a polite but firm manner, remind the person that you're there to present your point of view. Neither s/he nor you is a member of a debating team.

Your role is to present your ideas and information in a compelling and engaging manner. It is not a good idea to get into arguments with one audience member or a small group.

Always remember that the audience has the responsibility to listen with polite respect. They're not required to agree with you, but they are required to listen. As always, to your continued success and happiness.
About the Author
Based in Melbourne, Australia Dr Jeannette Kavanagh is a solution-oriented counsellor helping people overcome anxiety and panic attacks, particularly when speaking or performing in public. Sign up for her FREE ezine Public Speaking Success
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