How to Keep Your Cool When Your Audience Asks Tough Questions

red chairs and crowd

Originally published Oct. 25, 2017 on Inc.

Making a presentation under the best of circumstances can be nerve-wracking. From worrying about whether the rest of your team is as prepared (or unprepared) as you are, and making sure that the technology works, to confirming that your stories resonate, and that you actually remember what you had planned to say, speaking in a group setting can make even the most confident leader feel apprehensive.

And what can make a presentation even more unnerving? Fielding hostile questions from the audience. These aren’t innocent informational queries (like “Which agency are we going with for our next campaign?”), nor are they speculative requests (such as “Who do you think will be our biggest competition in three years?”).

These are the thinly veiled challenges to your credibility, knowledge and integrity that can cause even the most seasoned presenter to sweat.

So what should you do if you get a hostile question? Don’t take the bait. Don’t get defensive. And don’t become hostile yourself.

You want to make sure that a hostile questioner doesn’t get the attention, focus, or compassion of the audience. You also want to make sure that a hostile questioner doesn’t sway the audience, or undermine your authority and confidence. Here are five techniques you can try:

1. Acknowledge the reason behind the emotion, but not the emotion itself.

Imagine being asked this question: Why doesn’t senior management seem to care about our cost of living increases?” Don’t say, “Wow, you sound furious!” unless you want to risk the questioner responding, You bet I’m furious! And you want to know why? Because you people never…” and then taking over the presentation.

You might try saying, “It sounds like your cost of living increases are critically important to you and your colleagues. Let me stress how critically important they are to us, too. We agree on that. With that shared objective, I’d like to address how we’re planning to handle this…”

2. Be confused to buy time for both of you.

Assume that when people are hostile, they are less likely to communicate clearly and understandably. If someone is angry or aggressive in their questioning, take a moment and say, “I didn’t quite understand what you’re asking. Would you please ask it again, another way?” It will, in many cases, force the questioner to stop his or her attack, and think about rewording the question in a way that is less heated.

3. Offer the questioner the floor (temporarily).

If you recognize that the audience member is using the question really to make a statement, notice out loud, “It sounds more like you have a perspective to share than a question to ask. Is that right? If so, please share your point of view with us. I’m sure others would like to hear it as well.”

This may reduce his or her feelings of frustration of not feeling heard or respected. Then, after hearing the statement, you can choose to address it, postpone it, table it or something else. But whatever you do, take back control of the meeting after the audience member has had his or her say.

4. Tell the truth about the question’s impact.

You will likely have an involuntary physical or emotional response to a hostile question. Your face might get red, or your might get flustered and forget your train of thought. You will also likely have an involuntary instinct to try to cover it up. That can quickly compound the problem, and draw even more attention to it.

You’ll maintain your command of the room, and of yourself, if you simply say, I wasn’t expecting that question. I need a moment to gather my thoughts so that I can give you a considerate response.” Then take that moment to think about what you want to say next, which may be, “I realize I can’t answer this right now — and I do want to answer you. Would you please stay after so we can discuss in more detail?”

5. Dodge it and deliver an eloquent (but somewhat tangential) response.

In their article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, “The Artful Dodger: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way,” researchers Todd Rogers and Michael Norton found that listeners tend to be more impressed with speakers who artfully and eloquently sidestep the question being asked than they are with speakers who offer a direct but inarticulate answer.

Short attention work in your favor–if you can address a question with a related response, and do it with confidence and conviction, the questioner is likely to forget exactly what he or she originally asked. (This is another excellent reason to improve your overall presentation skills.)

No matter how well you’ve polished your deck or practiced your delivery, you need to anticipate that at least one person in your audience isn’t going to buy everything you’re selling. But with preparation and a plan, you can make sure that the audience leaves the presentation remembering your confidence and credibility, and not the comments of a hostile audience member.

Deborah Grayson Riegel Deborah Grayson Riegel is an executive coach and Director of Learning with The Boda Group. Deborah has coached hundreds of thousands of professionals to communicate more effectively in industries ranging from advertising, financial services, and government to non-profits, pharmaceuticals, and technology. Deborah is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia University, and an instructor of Management Communication at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more about Deborah or get in touch.