Mastering the Q&A: Dealing with Tough Questions with Confidence

You’re about to start your presentation. Everything is ready, you rehearsed… what can go wrong? Immediately, a bright red alarm goes off in your head: the Q&A!

The more you think about it, the more you feel your head spinning. What if they are mean? What if I don’t know the answer? What if…?

Before the Presentation

The first step is not to panic. You can’t think if you’re breathing heavily and your heart is pounding in your ears, and to avoid the anxiety escalation, you need to feel some control.

Naturally, you can’t control what they will ask, but you can anticipate some of the questions. Focus on all possible objections or criticisms to your presentation and prepare your argument and the way to answer. Do not worry about how hostile your interlocutor will be. You must answer all of them in the same calm, controlled way, so focus on what to say rather than how they will ask.

Avoid panic

Often, the speaker is unjustifiable nervous before the Q&A. Most audiences are polite and will not put you between a rock and a hard place. However, your level of nervousness may get you in trouble.

Before starting any presentation, take your time to breathe, meditate if you need to, and remember that questions are a good thing. No one would ask a question if you were a terribly boring presenter. Questions mean interest. They mean you passed a message, and people want to understand it and know more, and that’s the goal.

So, no matter what happens next, an audience’s question is always a good sign.

Clarify and Reframe

If the question is unclear, vague, or it seems to be based on a misunderstanding, you should take a step back.

You must be sure that the audience members understood your point and that you understood theirs. Don’t be afraid to ask to repeat questions or even explain what they mean; this is a great way to help you craft a better answer, buying time if you need it, and avoid misunderstandings. Misunderstandings are the main reason for conflict and negativity. On the other hand, good communication opens many doors.

Be brief and move on

The more you talk…, the bigger the possibility of saying something you shouldn’t, so keep it brief. Avoid rambling, or apologizing, or getting overly defensive. Answer exclusively what they asked for, and do not try to lecture your audience.

After the answer, move on to the next question. Don’t be rude, but don’t be afraid of being in control, either. It is your presentation.

Control your body language

Have you ever noticed that people tend to take a step back when they are defensive or uncomfortable? Your audience will notice, so don’t step back even if you feel attacked. You are the leader of the group; you’re not on trial.

You must also keep eye contact. Do not look away when the question is somehow uncomfortable. You’ll look scared. Do not adjust your outfit or microphone when an audience member is talking to you – it’s rude.

Always show interest and care, and you’ll see the tone of the question smoothing.

Dealing with hostility

A hostile question doesn’t mean a hostile audience. In fact, most audiences are on your side.

Many factors can lead an audience member to be too critical or aggressive. You can’t know them all, so your job is to remain calm and not take it too personally.

A hostile question has an emotional charge that affects the whole audience, so you need to address it in a way that the audience feels taken care of. Don’t disrespect the person asking the question, even if you think they are disrespecting you. Treat them well, be honest and professional in your answer, yet keep it short. You don’t want it to get out of control if it is simply a call for attention.

Do not abandon them

You should be brief and move on, but not in a way they feel disregarded. After you answer the question, check in with the person and ask if it answered their question. Make eye contact or any other technique you may come up with that doesn’t make them feel you’re just dumping information and don’t care about them.

This will make them feel appreciated, and other audience members will be more likely to be polite and considerate when asking their own questions.

Dodging is not the right move

It is only normal that you want to avoid uncomfortable or hostile questions, but trying to dodge them will make you look bad before your audience. You must answer, even if you only want to start running and never stop.

Focus on the person asking the question, reflect on it, and take a deep breath. Audiences are generally on your side, not on the side of bullies, so you already start with an advantage. With some training, you are ready for any question thrown at you.

Cátia is a psychologist who is passionate about helping children develop and train social skills.


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