By Colin Harris – Conchcom Ltd
There comes a time in every presentation when we get to the dreaded “Are there any questions?” bit. So let’s gird our loins and talk about some basic question answering techniques.
The bulk of this article is about how we answer those questions and will give some ideas and techniques that can be used to answer questions with confidence.
However, if we’re presenting to a small group of people we may invite them to ask questions throughout, especially if we’re presenting on a topic they’re unfamiliar with. Or perhaps it’s a demonstration, where we’re showing the software and what we are doing may naturally cause questions to arise. We’ll talk about this later.
So, questions, what are they all about? People ask questions for a number of reasons; it may be because they want clarification, perhaps there’s a specific point they need clearing up that your presentation didn’t cover, or maybe it’s because they disagree with what you’re saying. Sometimes it’s just because they think it’s their turn to speak.
The key point is the way you answer is going to determine how successful the presentation is. So no pressure then.
Here’s some simple tips to start with.
The one sided conversation
Have you ever been in a presentation, sat towards the back, where someone in front of you asks a question that you didn’t hear? Then the presenter answers, the questioner asks a follow up and the rest of you sit there listening to one half of a conversation trying to guess what the question was. How good was that?
So, Colin’s first rule is this. As the presenter it is your solemn duty to make sure everyone else hears the question. Even if the question can be heard by everyone in the room you repeat it. This achieves a number of things. Firstly, you can check you’re answering the right question – how do you know? Simple, you ask the questioner if that’s what their asking – maybe clarifying it. Secondly, it gives you a bit of time to think about the question and more importantly your answer. Thirdly, you pause. You don’t go er, ahh, let me see, oooh, that’s a hard one. You certainly don’t go ‘Great Question’ because what about everyone else’s questions – weren’t they great? No, pausing is powerful. Pausing indicates you’re taking the questions seriously, it empowers you, puts you in control, it oozes gravitas. Fourthly, you give the answer. More on answers later.
One final point – if the question was “would you like a coffee?” then a simple “Yes please” or “no thank you” will suffice.
Being on the front foot
There’s a cricket term – being on the front foot, and there’s its opposite – being on the back foot. Now I’m not going to spend ages explaining the rules of cricket so don’t worry but there is an interesting technique called ‘stepping forward into the question’ that we can use when we answer. It’s a way of appearing confident. Consider the opposite – stepping backwards. You get asked a question, you take a step back and answer it. Straight away you appear nervous and hesitant. They ask another and you back up again. Pretty soon you’re pinned against the back wall, all credibility lost.
So step forward, I’m not talking about standing right over someone in an aggressive way, but a small movement forwards gives a positive impact.
Minutiae, Time Travel and Tangents
“Can you explain, in detail, using lots of big words exactly how that feature works?” Sometime we get asked questions where although we know the answer, we know replying to the question is going to require us going really deep. And the rest of the audience neither cares nor understands the answer anyway. In that case it is perfectly acceptable to say to the questioner that you’d like to discuss that with them personally but afterwards. Tell them, and everyone else that you’re more than happy to answer it, however either time constraints or the level of technical detail is better discussed separately.
Perhaps they’ve asked a question that you know you will be covering later. Rather than jumping forward in time tell them that you’ll be covering it then. And remember when you do cover it to ask them if that answered their question.
Sometimes they may ask a question that you covered earlier – when you answer it it’s OK to say “Remember that slide or bit of the software that I showed you earlier? That was how we do x, y or z”. If it’s a demonstration you might have to break off and revisit the same thing again if it’s an important bit but if it’s a presentation to a larger group, then take it offline for later.
What about if the question is from left field, or takes you completely off agenda – again, if this is a group presentation it’s OK to say “I wasn’t planning on covering that, but I’m happy to discuss it afterwards”.
If you allow yourself to get dragged off your presentation agenda, then you’re likely to lose control. Just remember, if you have agreed to discuss it later, make sure you do.
Because it is
My mom was great at answering the really awkward questions when we were kids, “Mom, why is the grass green?”, “Because it is.”, “But mom, why?”, “Because I said so.” She also had the power to send us to bed early. Unfortunately, my mom isn’t around at my presentations. And also, I’ve found in business that threatening to ground people when they ask tough questions isn’t great when it comes to winning business.
But there’s going to be times when you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer. And it’s OK to admit it. But what you have to do is write the question down and tell the person you’ll find someone who does know the answer and that they’ll get it to them. Make sure you do. Otherwise, I’ll send my mom round.
Please don’t ask me that
There will be questions that you dread someone asking. They may be about some aspects of your product that you know are weak, maybe it’s something your company did in the past, someone may fundamentally disagree with your company’s ethos or choice of technology, perhaps the previous release was released a bit previously (e.g. before testing was complete) and contained some undocumented features that did not operate as expected, (e.g. it was a bit buggy.)
So what do you do? Do you panic? Fudge? Dance around trying to skirt the issue? Lie? Show the white flag of surrender? No. You answer the question with the answer you’ve prepared earlier. Huh, how do you mean?
What you do before a major presentation is ask yourself, your colleagues and coworkers (there really should be a hyphen in co-workers as I always read it as cow-orkers, whatever they are) to come up with all the really nasty awkward questions you can think of and then spend some time to come up with the answers. And then practice giving the answers whilst your cow-orkers fire awkward questions at you.
Taking our example from before about that release that was a bit of a nightmare: – You’ve fixed that, right? You’ve put new procedures in place to check the quality etc. So you acknowledge there was a problem and explain what you’ve done to correct it and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
If your company did something bad then you have to acknowledge it and show why that won’t happen again.
If your product doesn’t do xy and z then explain why it doesn’t, be positive about what your product does do that overcomes your clients’ problems.
It’s well worth practising this technique. It enables you to remain strong and positive in the face of adversity. And if you do it like I’ve explained, you can turn a negative into a positive.
But If your company did something really bad, and aren’t fixing it, or the product is seriously deficient and is neither use nor ornament then perhaps it’s time to question why you’re still working there.
When we answer questions, especially ones of a technical nature, it’s often a good idea to use an analogy to explain what we mean. I plan to do a complete article on analogies and stories but if you can use a simple analogy to explain a complex problem then there’s a good chance that the audience will understand. Say there’s a particular feature in your software that has lots of different settings so you can vary the affect it has. Now explaining all that may involve talking about complex algorithms or diving deep into many scenarios. What you don’t do is say “With our product we can have 147 different ways of doing X. The first way is….., the second is…” What you could do instead is use an analogy that contrasts the difference between a light switch and a dimmer switch. With a light switch you’ve got two settings – on or off – with a dimmer switch you can vary the brightness according to your needs. Remember, it’s our job to make the complex seem simple; although I’ve seen presenters do the exact opposite, usually to justify how important their role is.
Presumably there is a light switch manufacturer somewhere who contrasts the differences between a light switch and a dimmer switch by talking about the 147 different forecasting algorithms that can be used in Materials Requirements Planning.
Anyway, watch this blog for my analogy piece.
So we’ve talked about answering questions in a confident and positive manner. We haven’t alienated the rest of the audience by having a one-sided conversation and we’ve been on our front foot and knocked those curved balls out of the ballpark using more analogies than you can shake a stick at.
If all else fails you can also use Colin’s 2nd golden rule – start all of your presentations by telling the audience they can ask anything they like, but if you don’t know the answer, you’ll treat it as a rhetorical question.
Is that it? Thanks for listening, I’ll be the one at the bar if you have any other questions.