How to deal with difficult questions in a presentation
Summary: Tactics and phrases for dealing with tricky questions in a presentation Q&A
The Q&A is the most nerve-racking part of the already stressful experience of standing up in front of an audience and presenting, and the worst part of that is getting difficult questions. However, there are several tactics which can help with dealing with tricky questions smoothly:
- Fill silence/ Think out loud
- Show how unsure your answer is
- Politely not answer the question
After that, you will probably want to check if your answer is okay or offer to answer another way, and finally thank the audience for the (difficult) questions. This article gives tips and phrases for each of those steps, in that order. For practice of this and other parts of the presentation opening, body and ending, see https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/teaching-presenting/
Filling silence in the presentation Q&A
Filling silence by checking the question
Perhaps the least stressful situation for the presenter is being able to send the question back to the audience member as they check the meaning of the question/ what the questioner wants to know. If you have some idea what the question is, the best questions are those which explain your understanding to the questioner and double-check it, such as:
- (Before I answer, can I check exactly what you want to know?) Are you asking…?
- (So,) do you mean…?
- (So) if I understand correctly, your question is…
- (So) if I understand your question correctly, you want to know…
- If I understand, what you want to know is… (Is that right?)
- If I understand you correctly, you are asking…
- (Can I just double-check?) Is your question…?
As long as you don’t use this too much in one Q&A session, this can also be a good tactic for delaying your answer, even when you are 99% sure what the question means.
If you have more problems understanding what the question is, it’s best to avoid generally phrases like “Pardon?” and “Sorry, I didn’t catch that” as much as possible and instead be specific about what the problem is, with questions like:
- (Sorry) I don’t really understand what you mean by…/ What do you mean by…?
- (Sorry, I couldn’t catch that.) Could you (possibly) repeat the question (just one more time/ a little more slowly/ a little more loudly)?
- (Sorry) can you put that another way?/ could you rephrase the question?
The parts in brackets above are optional, but good for further filling time if you need time to think.
Filling silence by commenting on the question
When the questioner has confirmed, repeated and/ or explained the meaning of their question, you can then use perhaps the simplest and most useful tactic for filling silence before answering, which is commenting on the question. However, you should avoid repeating the same phrases and make sure that the comment really matches the question, so you’ll need a range of different phrases for this.
The simplest commenting on the question phrases follow the pattern “(That’s a/ an) … question”, as in:
- Good question.
- That’s a great question. Well,…
- That’s an interesting question.
- That’s a (rather/ pretty) difficult/ complex/ big/ deep/ philosophical question (but…)
Similar comments on the question include:
- That’s a tricky one.
- (That’s a) good point.
- Thank you for that (very interesting/ great) question.
Another easy pattern is “I’m (so/ really) … that you asked me that”, as in:
- I’m delighted that you asked me that question.
- I’m (so/ very) glad you asked me that.
A similar but also kind of opposite phrase is the jokey one “(Wow!) I was hoping no one would ask me that!”
You can also comment on how common/ likely such a question is with:
- I (should have) expected that question.
- I (kind of) expected someone might ask me that.
- (Ah yes) I thought someone might ask me that.
- I was (kind of) expecting that question.
- No one has ever asked me that before.
- I’m often asked that question.
- I’m sure many people have the same question.
You can also kind of apologise, in comments like:
- (Sorry) I should have explained that earlier.
- (Actually) I was planning to mention that earlier.
- (Sorry) it seems (that) I didn't explain myself (very) clearly.
The parts in brackets above are again useful for filling time/ silence, with these starters being particularly useful:
- Ah yes…
Politely asking people to wait in presentation Q&A sessions
The most direct way of filling silence is asking people to wait. The most common and easiest to use phrases are “Just a… while…” and “Just a…, I’m …ing (…)”, as in:
- Just a moment while I get that up on the screen again. Sorry, just one more page. Here it is. Well,…
- Just a minute. I’m just trying to remember. Well,…
- Just a second while I have a look in my notes. I’m pretty sure I have it in here somewhere. Just one more moment. Got it. Okay,…
- Just a sec’ while I think of the best way to explain. Well,...
- Just a mo’. Got that right here.
Expressions with verbs in the imperative like “Wait…” are less generally useful as they can sound like commands, but there are some which are quite common:
- (Okay) just give a second to find the right graph.
- Just hold on a second while I find the right part of the table.
- Let me just take a look at my notes.
- (Hmmmm.) Let me think.
- (Errmmm.) Let me see.
A pattern which is generally more polite is phrases starting with “If” like:
- If I can just go back a couple of slides to look at that chart in more detail,…
- If you can just give me a second, I’ll do a quick calculation.
As long as you avoid repeating, it’s possible to string the expressions above together to fill all the time necessary for you to think of a good answer, as in:
- Sorry, if you can give me a moment to try to think of the best answer to that. Just a moment. Hmmmm. Let me think. Let me see. Well,…
Asking questions to yourself in the Q&A
Another obvious tactic for filling time, and one that goes perfectly after “Let me see” in the string of asking people to wait phrases above, is asking yourself a question, as in:
- (… Let me see.) What’s the best way to answer that (question)? Well,…
- How can I best answer that? Well,…
Answering Q&A questions while still thinking/ before deciding what to say
After or instead of directly asking people to wait, you can also use phrases which seem to be the start of the answer but are in fact also there just to fill time, as in:
- Perhaps the best answer to that is…
- I can (perhaps) answer that by saying…
- (I don’t have the exact figures at the moment, but/ Off the top of my head) I would probably say that…
Mentioning what you said earlier
This is similar to the tip above, in that it looks like a part of the answer but is just as useful for filling time while the presenter is thinking. These phrases often start with “As”, as in:
- As I (think I) (briefly) mentioned (earlier),…
- As I said in my introduction/ in the last part of my presentation/ in…,…
- As you might remember from the… part of my presentation,…
“Remember” is another useful key word, as in:
- (I didn’t explain this in detail, but) you may remember that I talked about…
- Do you remember that we saw…? Well,…
Finally, there are phrases which include words linking two things together like “related”, as in:
- Following on from what I said in the… part of my presentation,…
- That’s related to…, where I said…
- This is connected to what I said about…
Showing how unsure your answer is
These kinds of phrases can also be used to extend your answers and so give yourself thinking time. However, the main purposes are to show the questioner how confident they can be in your answer and so to cover yourself if it turns out that your answer is not 100% accurate. This often starts with a reason why your answer cannot be completely relied upon, as in:
- I’m no expert on this, but…
- I didn’t research this, but…
- I don’t remember very well, but…
- It was a long time ago, but…
- This is not really my area, but…
- I don’t have that information with me at the moment, but…
- I don’t have any actual data on that, but...
- I think I’m in the minority on this one, but…
- I don’t know what other people think about this, but…
- I don’t have enough time to go into this in detail, but…
- It’s quite difficult to explain without the mathematical equations, but…
- I don’t know what our company’s official position on this is, but…
Then comes the phrase saying how sure or unsure you are. These include, in approximate order of certainty:
- I’m almost completely certain that…
- I’m fairly sure/ fairy confident that…
- We may well/ might well…
- There’s a fair chance that…
- It’s possible that…
- It’s conceivable that…
- We can’t rule out the possibility of…
Politely not answering questions in presentations
In some situations, the reasons given above for unsure answers can instead be reasons for not answering questions at all, for example if you are a researcher who doesn’t want to speculate on things outside your own area or if it isn’t a good idea to speak on company matters related to other departments. Other reasons for not answering include confidentiality, that topic is coming up later anyway, nothing coming to mind, and one questioner dominating the Q&A. Suitable first words for politely not answering include:
- I’m sorry but…
- I’m afraid…
- I hope you can understand that…
- As you might have guessed…
- As you can imagine…
You might sometimes then want to politely but directly say that you can’t answer, as in:
- I can’t answer that at this moment in time.
- I’m not able to share that information.
- I don’t have an answer to that question.
- I’m not in a position to be able to answer that question at this moment in time.
After or instead of directly saying that you can’t answer, you will need to give a reason for not answering the question, as in:
- I can’t find that information in my notes.
- I can’t remember that off the top of my head.
- I didn’t bring that data with me today./ I don’t have the data here.
- I didn’t do (much/ any) research on that.
- I didn’t research that (topic) (in much detail)
- I don’t have any (actual) data on that.
- I don’t have that information with me (at the moment/ today).
- I don’t (really) have (enough) time to go into detail.
- I think some other people would also like to ask questions./ Some other people also have their hands up.
- I’ll have to think about that.
- It might take me too long to answer that.
- My answer might take longer than we have available.
- My mind has gone blank at the moment
- That information is confidential.
- That question is rather specialist.
- That’s a bit (too) complex to go into in the time available.
- That’s a bit (too) deep to go into right now.
- That’s a bit too detailed to go into at the moment.
- That’s not really my area.
- There’s something on that in the next section of my presentation.
Offering to answer the question another way
If you don’t want not answering the question to be too negative for the audience, you should usually then offer to answer the question another way. Such offers could include emailing the questioner, answering by email if the questioner emails you, speaking face to face after the presentation, getting someone else to answer it, and allowing them to ask again later in the presentation. Typical phrases for offering to answer Q&A questions another way include:
- (If you give me your email address,) can I email it to you later?/ I’ll email you (in the next few days/ later today/…).
- Can I get back to you later?
- Can you ask me that again later if I don’t answer it then?
- Can you come up later to talk about it individually?
- I’d love to (be able to) talk about it (later) in person.
- (If you email me at this address,) I’ll answer your question as quickly as I can.
- I’ll be happy to explain it in more detail later.
- (Can I see if anyone else has any questions and then) I’ll come back to you later.
- I’ll do my best to answer your question then.
- I’ll get back to you (about that) (as soon as I can/ later/…)
- My colleague over here might know/ can probably answer that better than me.
Much less commonly, you can also occasionally answer about something close to but not the same as the topic of the question, with phrases like:
- Shall I tell you about… instead?
Checking if your answer was okay
If you did manage to answer their question (however inadequately), you should then check if your answer is okay. This is usually best done with Yes/ No questions like:
- Does that answer your question?
- Is that what you wanted to know?/ Was that what you wanted to know?
- Is that (a bit) clearer now?
- Is that enough information (on that)?
If you are too scared that such a question could lead to a negative answer and/ or another difficult question, you can make a statement that has a similar function like:
- I hope that answers your question.
- I hope that’s a little clearer now.
- Sorry for not explaining that better before.
Unless you really want to have more difficult questions, I’d suggest avoiding negative questions like “…or wasn’t that what you wanted to know?” and “… or not?”
Thanking the audience for difficult questions at the end
“Thanks for your difficult question” is a rather strange way to finish a Q&A and/ or the whole presentation, but you can use similar phrases like “Thanks for all your great questions. It will give me a lot to mull on when I get home tonight” and “Thanks for all your really thought-provoking questions. They’ve given me several ideas for possible future presentation topics!”
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