You won't always know the answer
It's probably true to say that no presenter knows absolutely everything there is to know about their given specialty. There will certainly be occasions when they won't be able to answer every question posed to them - it's only human. Below are three techniques to help you deal with difficult questions, and sometimes the people attached to them as well.
1. Stepping into the question
'On the back foot' is a term often considered to originate from the game of cricket, when a player is defending their territory. Most of us would now associate it with being caught out by a comment or question. If we feel someone is stumbling or struggling with an answer we'll often use the term to describe their state.
What is also true is that we can display that we are on the back foot by physically stepping away from a difficult question. Whether the audience is conscious or unconscious of that move, as animals we sense that they are retreating – now would be the time that someone might 'attack' with another difficult question. The answer to this is to step INTO the difficult question. The physical gesture of moving forwards gives an unconscious signal to the questioner that the speaker is engaging with the question, even if the response is simply "I don’t have the answer to that question at hand, if you give me your details, I’ll get something over to you as soon as I know".
2. Using eye contact
When we look at each other we signal with our eyes that we can engage in conversation. The same is true when we are presenting and someone asks a difficult question - we will look at that person as they ask their question, and will then respond to them with the answer.
There are two things to consider when responding to someone who may be being difficult or who may simply be overly enthusiastic and dominating the questions. Firstly, direct your answer to the entire audience, not just the person who asked the question. It shows respect for everyone sitting and listening to you. Secondly, if you do not want this person to come back with another question, rest your eyes away from that person as you finish your answer. This may well feel counter intuitive, but the person will not notice if you have given them eye contact during your response. Without eye contact it is much harder for them to jump back in with another question.
3. Finding something you can agree with
There will always be occasions where we’re asked a question about something that we fundamentally oppose and subsequently our answer could create tension or conflict with the person who asked it. In these situations you need to add another dimension alongside sharing your eye contact - agreement. Finding something within the question that you can agree with demonstrates that you've fully heard the question, and also makes it easier for you to introduce your counterpoint.
Find the time to practice listening to other people's arguments to see where you can find agreement, e.g. I may not agree with fox hunting, but during a discussion I could agree that foxes kill livestock and that fox hunting is a traditional sport before discussing my counter points.
Here is Steve Jobs in 1997 masterfully employing all of the techniques described above to deal with a difficult and somewhat aggressive question from the audience.
Eye contact is essential to effective communication – but with larger groups it can be hard for people to see your eyes. What’s the answer? > Read more