One of the most challenging parts of a business presentation is managing questions. It is a challenge because questions are hard to control. If your CEO asks you about sales in Brazil, even if your presentation is about something else entirely, you can’t say, “Susan, we aren’t talking about that right now. Please hold your questions until later.” You have to answer the question.
Your audience will usually use questions as a test. It is one thing to bring a presentation and go through it. It is quite another thing to be able to confidently and accurately respond to questions. Executives ask questions to clarify, but also to test and probe. Just how solid is this recommendation, anyway?
Instead of dreading questions, I think presenters should look at them as an opportunity to shine. If you manage questions well, you will pass the test and your recommendation (and you) will come across as smart.
The key is that you have to spend as much time preparing for the questions as you do the presentation itself.
The simplest thing you can do to prepare for questions is anticipate them.
If you can predict the questions, you can think through your responses. If you suspect someone will ask about competitive developments, for instance, you can look at competitive developments ahead of time so you are ready for the question.
To anticipate questions, simply go through your presentation and consider what someone might ask about. If you’ve built a tight presentation, you will already have addressed many of the logical questions; your presentation will naturally follow a line of thought. Still, on each page there are likely possible questions and you can prepare for these.
When you get a question, it is important to address it with confidence. Someone who I watched present recently backed away from the audience and stood by the screen every time she received a question. This is not confident signal. Instead, you want to step forward, look at the person who asked the question, and respond.
You almost certainly know more about the topic than anyone else in the room. You’ve been working on this presentation for weeks. They’ve been doing other things. You know the answer to the question, so just answer.
One way to make your responses particularly impactful is to drop in some specific facts. If you can say, “John, thank you for that questions. Profits from the Mexico market were strong last year. If I recall, they were $19.7 million, an increase of 8.7% from prior year,” you will come across as a rather knowledgeable business leader indeed. Your audience will think, “Wow, this person really knows her stuff.”
The challenge is that it is impossible to remember dozens of facts, and even trying to makes it likely you will get confused. One approach I favor is identifying just a few important facts before the meeting and writing them down on a piece of paper. Then set the paper somewhere you can easily see it when presenting. When you get a question, you can reference one of these facts.
The fact doesn’t have to exactly match the question. If someone asks about recycled content on a particular product, you might say, “We have a very high level of recycled content. Across the portfolio, we recycled an average of 18.7% of the total product volume.” This fact didn’t align with the question precisely; they asked about a particular product. Still, it seems quite robust and precise.
As you become a more advanced presenter, you might go so far as to subtlety invite questions. It is good to engage people, and good to get questions. So you might decide to leave obvious question points in your presentation.
The best thing about one of these invited questions is that you can be ready for it. You might say, “At least we won’t run into distribution problems like Acme encountered in Germany.” This invites the question, “What exactly happened to Acme in Germany?” Having known that this question was likely, you can fully explain the question.
Sometimes people won’t ask the question you are anticipating. In that case, all is not lost. You can simply proceed, which is fine, or you can say, “So you might be wondering about …” and then answer the question.
Sometimes you won’t know the answer to a question. It is inevitable; there is simply too much data to know everything.
You want to be ready for these moments and have a back-up plan. The easiest thing to say is something like, “Pierre, let me get back you on that.” If you have a sense of the answer, you could say, “Pierre, I think profits in Korea were $3.2 million, but let me check that and confirm.” General answers are even safer, “I think profits were about $3 million, but I will confirm this.”
One thing you should not do is just guess, or take a chance, particularly on a factual answer. If someone asks, “When did we launch the reduced calorie line?” you don’t want to reply “We launched it in 2006” unless you are very confident you launched it in 2006. If the product actually launched in 2002, you can easily be proven wrong and damage your credibility.
It is tempting to redirect the question to someone on your team. Be careful! You don’t want to redirect a question unless the person is ready to answer it. If George is checking his phone, he will simply stumble when you redirect it to him, and this will make you and the team look bad.
People love to say, “That is a great question!” It seems like a perfect response in many ways. You are complimenting the person and taking time to think about your answer.
Don’t do this. The problem is that you will quickly be trapped. If you say, “Great question!” to one person, you then are almost obligated to say it to the next person. If you don’t, what does that mean? Is it a dumb question? You never want to insult or demean your audience. So you will soon be saying the same thing to every question. This will make you look ridiculous.
The other issue is that there really shouldn’t be great questions. If you wrote a strong presentation, you’ve already anticipated the issues. If there was really a great question, you should have answered it in your presentation. You might have planted the question, but this doesn’t make it a great question. It is then just an obvious and predicted question.
Instead of hating questions, people should look at them as opportunities. If you think strategically about questions, each one becomes a chance to shine, a chance to build credibility, and a chance to build your brand and sell your recommendation.
Tim Calkins is a clinical professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the author of the forthcoming book, How To Wash A Chicken—Mastering the Business Presentation.