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.

Contact Us

Have you handled a difficult question at a presentation in your community? Want to offer feedback to others?