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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Can you answer that?

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

man stands to ask a question during a presentation

The Q&A can be one of the most dreaded parts of a presentation. Why? Because we fear we might not know how to respond to a difficult question. However, mastering the Q&A is not an impossible endeavor.

By implementing and practicing these five steps, you can go from fearing this portion of a speech to embracing the Q&A. After all, the Q&A is a great opportunity to reinforce and elaborate on your main ideas and ensure the audience walks away with their needs met. Consider that the more questions an audience asks, the more engaged and interested they are in your presentation.

Master the Q&A with these 5 steps:

Step #1 Listen. Really listen.

Pay attention to the question, the entire question, without formulating your answer. If you don’t, you may answer the “wrong” question. Listening well demonstrates respect to the seeker and the audience. Observe the seeker and look for nonverbal cues to hidden questions or emotions. Listen. Really listen.

Step #2 Pause and repeat.

Take a moment to organize your thoughts and prepare an answer. There is power in silence. A brief pause demonstrates the seeker’s question is worthy of thought. Repeating the question is helpful if others couldn’t hear it and allows you to clarify if you understood it correctly. Pausing gives you time to formulate a good response.

Step #3 Provide a succinct summary.

Begin your response with a one or two sentence summary of the answer. Determine if the question seeks greater clarity or context. Put the answer in perspective of the bigger picture before providing specific examples to illustrate and build your case. If possible, tie your response back to a key point.

Step #4 Elaborate with evidence.

Provide a brief answer and add one supporting piece of evidence – a statistic, an example, a reason, a fact, even an opinion or quotation (if clearly indicated as such). Build in a clue that although you are giving just one main piece of support, you could provide more details if the seeker, or others, wish to know more. Let someone ask for more if desired.

Step #5 Emphasize a key point.

An answer can be made stronger by restating your initial one-sentence summary or by emphasizing a related key point. Don’t weaken your response with endings such as, “I don’t know if that answered your question.” Just end. Smile and turn to the audience demonstrating you are open to more questions.

You can download a free tip sheet with these 5 steps here:

Chapter 37 in the upcoming Academy Guide to Nutrition Communication will be titled, “Nutrition Communicators Effectively Field Questions.” In addition to covering these steps to fielding questions, it covers strategies for dealing with 7 different types of difficult questions.

One of the most feared “difficult questions” is when the answer is “I don’t know.” If you prepare ahead of time and anticipate potential questions, you will eliminate the potential for having to say, “I don’t know” very often. Although you will never know the answer to every question, you should know how to answer most questions related to the content of your presentation. If you don’t know the answer, be honest. Three potential responses are:

  • “I don’t know, but I would be happy to look it up and get back with you.” Request that the seeker put the question in writing and send it to you in an email, allowing you to look up the answer. This is an appropriate response when the question is one that you are certain you can locate the answer, it is just not something you are prepared to answer on your feet. If you receive their question be sure to follow through on your promise to answer.

  • If you know a partial or related answer, say: “I don’t know ____, but I do know ____ and ____.” This technique is especially effective if the answer helps summarize a key point.

  • If you perceive the seeker knows the answer, ask them what they think. Sometimes people ask you a question they know the answer to and want to hear your opinion or see if you know. Only use this strategy if you are confident their answer will be accurate. You might say something like, “I need to give that question some thought. What are your thoughts?”

Practice and prepare for the Q&A as part of your presentation rehearsal. Think about your audience. Anticipate questions they are likely to pose. Practice responses to anticipated questions. If your Q&A is at the end of your presentation, follow it with a strong closing statement that emphasizes your main point and gives a powerful take-away message.

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”

~ Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian novelist

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