Handling Difficult Questions
Whenever you put yourself in front of the public, you should be prepared for someone in the crowd to ask you a difficult question. How you respond will leave a strong impression on the audience. You may or may not have the answer to the question you are asked. Either way, you should respond with empathy, sincerity, and a suggestion of action or assistance.
When You HAVE an answer to the question
If a quick response is appropriate, you can answer the question in three steps:
- Express empathy or concern (see below).
- Start with the conclusion. Present the facts. (For example: The water is safe in Greenwater Fishpond. Here is why the water is safe.)
- Discuss future actions that you or your organization will take. (For example: This fall, XYZ Company will implement a new process that has even more controls for making sure the water is safe at Greenwater Fishpond.)
If a more thoughtful response is required, use the same three steps, but take more time with each:
Express empathy or concern (see below).
- Relate a personal story or cite an analogy that shows you identify with the questioner’s concern.
Start with the conclusion. Present the facts.
- Keep it short and to the point.
- Provide two facts. Make sure at least one fact is supported by a credible third party.
- Repeat your conclusion.
Discuss future actions you or your organization will take.
- Describe specifically how you plan to improve.
- Describe specifically how the audience can get more information.
When you DON’T HAVE an answer to the question
Never feel obligated to answer a question you don’t fully understand or know the answer to:
- Say, “I don’t know.”
- Immediately offer your phone number or ask the questioner for a phone number (or say that you’ll get their contact information after the presentation) and state that you will work with the questioner to find the answer.
- Follow up with the questioner as soon as possible after the meeting.
Phrases to use when expressing empathy and concern:
- That’s important to me
- That’s a very important question/issue/concern
- I have looked into that because I recognize its importance
- I have asked myself that same question
- You’ve raised an issue that means a lot to me
- I’ve given a lot of thought to that
- I can relate to your concern about…
- Looking at this issue from your point of view, I can see why you are concerned
- If I had read and heard the same things you have been reading and hearing, I would ask the same question
- As a resident (or member of this community or parent), I am also concerned about [issue]
- I can sense your frustration (anger/deep feelings/concerns) about…
A few extra tips:
- Don’t repeat negative allegations against you or your organization. Say “no” and go on to explain why not.
- Speak in simple terms. Do not use jargon or technical terms.
- When possible, relate your answer to your presentation.
- Remember the purpose of your speech. Stick to the messages you want to convey.
- Try to satisfy the questioner and the audience, but retain control.
Have you handled a difficult question at a presentation in your community? Want to offer feedback to others?