By Kenneth H. Rosenfield, P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE
Welcome to the third and final installment of this public speaking series aimed to help you enhance your public speaking skills and provide effective messaging. With over 40 years of experience in the public and private sectors, I have gathered valuable insights and experience as a public speaker, which will benefit those seeking to hone this important skill.
In parts 1 and 2 of the series, I covered the significance of thorough preparation for your speaking engagement and identified multiple presentation-skill best practices. In this final article, I will explain how to deal with after-presentation queries, including how to respond to difficult and anger-filled questions.
The end of your presentation is really just the beginning. You followed best practices and conveyed your message; you thanked the audience members for their attentiveness and time; and you offered your contact information. As is typical, now is the time that you provide the audience members the opportunity to provide comments and ask questions. For some, this can be the most difficult portion of the public speaking engagement, but it is an opportunity to further showcase your knowledge on the topic.
Questions are also a crucial way to assess the success of your delivery. The nature and depth of the questions posed can offer invaluable feedback. If attendees seem lost or confused, it might hint at areas where your presentation could be clearer or more comprehensive. Conversely, insightful questions that build on your content signify engagement and understanding.
How to respond to audience questions
1. Allow everyone to share: During the comment and question session, allow everyone an opportunity to share. This will reduce any concerns or frustrations from audience members and ensure they will not perceive that their input is being cut off or ignored.
2. Treat each query as an opportunity for a meaningful dialogue: Some questions might challenge your viewpoints or the core message of your presentation. Remain calm. Understand the underlying concerns, address them, and build bridges of understanding.
Having good posture with a relaxed face, arms, and hands, along with eye contact, shows audience members the respect they deserve and gives them confidence that you are interested in what they are saying. It is disarming to audience members if you patiently listen, nod your head to show you are hearing their comment/question, maintain eye contact, and show interest. All these small acts emote empathy from you to audience members.
3. Confirm the question: Once a question has been asked, if needed, confirm your understanding by rephrasing it for clarity and correcting any misstatements, assumptions, or conclusionary statements made by the attendee. Then answer the question, reinforcing the information that you previously presented.
It is amazing to me how many times a question that is asked of a presenter is left unanswered. Note that audience members who haven’t spoken up likely have the same question and want to hear the answer.
4. Maintain your composure: There will be times when attendees display strong emotional reactions, be it due to personal experiences, deep-rooted beliefs, or other reasons. Engage with them empathetically, human to human. Recognize their perspective and, if appropriate, share personal anecdotes that may resonate with them.
Depending upon the topic and the emotions it triggers, you may become the verbal target of an abusive statement or question. Your role? Maintain equilibrium and remain calm. The audience member is misdirecting emotions onto you, the messenger, regardless of the value of the information you are providing. But, at the same time, this is your best opportunity to respond in a positive manner and further help the rest of the audience understand the materials.
- Listen actively: Even if the attendee’s approach seems aggressive, listen to the concerns without interruption. Often, the mere act of being heard can diffuse tension.
- Avoid escalation: Steer clear of confrontational language. Instead, recognize the questioner’s feelings, calmly offer your perspective, and seek common ground.
- Lean on your preparation: Take a deep breath. Remember the skills from parts 1 and 2? This is the time to lean into them, combining your knowledge and emotional intelligence to address concerns while preserving the room’s positive atmosphere.
5. Follow up if necessary: In addition, for best practices, it is best to avoid telling an audience member that a question is wrong, inappropriate, or unrelated to the presentation. It’s equally important to admit when you don’t have an answer. Do your best to provide factual responses. Honesty builds credibility. For any question you cannot answer, get the contact information of the person and commit to responding as soon as is reasonable.
Public speaking is as much about connecting with your audience as it is about delivering content. By mastering post-presentation engagement, you not only reaffirm your message but also foster stronger relationships with your listeners. You have completed your presentation with new skills and techniques that improve your ability to convey your message. You have avoided being a distraction, and you have enhanced the audience’s ability to understand the issue at hand. Congratulations!
I trust you have enjoyed this three-part series and will join me in Chicago for the ASCE Convention. I am speaking on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 a.m. I look forward to meeting you!
This series is available in partnership with the 2023 ASCE Convention (Chicago, Oct. 18-21).
This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.