Many presenters dread the challenge of dealing with hostile or otherwise difficult questions. Some questioners have a personal agenda, or simply enjoy embarrassing a presenter. With experience, I eventually came to enjoy the challenge of dealing with difficult questioners. The presenter who stays calm and remembers a few simple techniques can nearly always hold their own, or better, in such encounters.

Approach the task with confidence. Let the audience see you are confident and calm. If you become defensive or argumentative it tends to legitimize the hostile questioner. The audience will tend to side with you if you remain gracious and polite.

Never give the appearance of being disrespectful toward an audience member. This will deaden the crowd, making others less likely to contribute. It will also make audience members (who tend to identify with their peers in the group) resent you.

Use a strategic pause. Some presenters have been known to gain a little extra time to compose themselves or prepare to answer a particularly difficult question by taking a drink of water or referring to their notes.

Acknowledge the possibility of different viewpoints. A response like this will often work wonders: “Thank you for expressing your view” [so articulately–if that is true]. I know that others have come to different conclusions on this issue. I am telling you what has worked for me [or most people].”

Give ground when appropriate. If there is or appears to be some validity to the questioner’s position, acknowledge it readily. For example, if someone is complaining about the time needed to compile records for financial disclosure purposes, acknowledge that it can be a burden. Failure to acknowledge the obvious will cause you to look out of touch or unreasonable. However, be firm in defending the ground you must defend.

Direct your attention appropriately. Treat the questioner like they are the most important person in the world while they are speaking, but when you respond, orient your body language and eye contact toward the group as a whole. In jury trials I consciously try to direct most of my attention not toward the judge, but the jury. There is nothing you could say that would satisfy every questioner with a chip on their shoulder. Direct your attention toward the audience that matters.

Prepare for predictable difficult questions. Sometimes you can predict troublesome questions. This gives you the option to preempt the question by raising it yourself during your presentation. This can take the sting from the issue.

Consider preparing  just-in-case slides. For important presentations, or ones I will be giving multiple times, I sometimes prepare slides to assist in answering the most important questions I anticipate. Wasted effort if no one asks the question? Sure, but when you happen to have just the right slide for a difficult question, it can make a palpable impression on an audience. Knowing you have just the right slide in reserve is a big confidence builder as well.

Offer to meet with the questioner after the presentation. This will discourage troublemakers who crave the attention of the audience.

Offer to research the issue and provide an answer. This is not the most original technique but it has its advantages, including giving the audience a reason to visit a site you want them to visit. This could be your LinkedIn account, your blog or even a publicly accessible Facebook post.

Use Empathy + Objectivity. A powerful tool for dealing with emotional, angry questioners is what I call the Empathy + Objectivity formula. It works like this:

Step 1: Begin your answer by acknowledging the questioner’s emotions, something like… ”Nearly anyone in your position would feel the same way…”

Step 2: Conclude your answer by providing an objective assessment of the situation. For example, if you are training government employees on the legal requirement to file financial disclosure forms you can expect angry attacks from those who view the requirement as an unwarranted intrusion into privacy. You might respond something like this:

“I understand why people might feel that way. However, Congress created the Office of Government Ethics to establish a uniform approach, and this is what OGE came up with. It’s a known condition of government employment, and if we want to work for the Executive Branch, we have to deal with it. I’d be glad to talk with you after this presentation if you like.”

Know when to turn a question back on the audience – and when not to. Some public speaking books recommend that a presenter who is stumped by a difficult question should ask the audience to proffer an answer. This makes a lot of sense in some situations. If you are a lawyer teaching a group of other lawyers in your organization, you may be more of a peer than an authority figure.

In other settings, the reverse-the-question technique is dubious. In some situations the presenter is supposed to be the expert, the authority figure. Passing some types of questions to the audience can reduce the group’s respect for your expertise. In such situations it is usually better to respond with the time-honored gambit of offering to look up the answer.

Consider the use of question forms. Finally, the practice of providing “live” answers only to written questions is often a useful technique for dealing with questioners who have an agenda. You can answer at the public meeting only the questions you want to answer, and reserve questions with an agenda for the post-meeting follow-up. Establishing this policy and sticking to it is a powerful way of positioning yourself when hostile questions are expected. This technique can be powerful but requires some finesse to implement effectively, so I’ll be discussing it in a later article in this series.

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