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

Questions lead to greater understanding

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Responding to audience questions

Have you considered the power of good questions?

A good question reveals what needs to be clarified or brought to light. Questions lead to greater understanding. For the presenter, educator, or communicator, fielding and answering questions is a critical skill.

Do you fear answering questions? Don't.

Does fielding questions or anticipating the Q&A portion of a presentation fill you with dread? It doesn’t have to. This tip series provides 5 tips for mastering the Q&A and is an update of Tip Series #8.

It is based on content found in Chapter 36 of Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide, which is titled, “Strengthen Communication by Effectively Responding to Questions.” I had the privilege of authoring this chapter along with Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RDN, LD, FAND, FADA and Katie McKee, MCN, RDN, LD.

Master the Q&A with these 5 tips:

Tip #1 Questions demonstrate audience interest

Speakers often shy away from the Q&A and hope their call for questions is met with silence. Fear no more, because when audience members eagerly ask questions it shows they are interested in learning more. The Q&A session provides an excellent opportunity to eliminate confusion, elaborate on evidence, and emphasize key points. Embrace the Q&A, don’t fear it!

Tip #2 Plan for questions

Provide a time and process for asking questions. The Q&A is often at the conclusion of a speech, but questions can also be solicited throughout a presentation. Use one or more methods that encourage all audience members to participate such as raising hands, coming to a microphone, a phone app, or collecting index cards. Plan to follow with closing remarks.

Tip #3 Listen first and well

The first step in effectively responding to questions is to listen. As Chapter 36 in Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide states, “Really listen. Pay attention to the question, the entire question, without formulating an answer.” Listening demonstrates respect, promotes understanding, and accounts for verbal and nonverbal cues. Listen first. Listen well.

Tip #4 Pause, repeat, upgrade if needed

Before answering, organize your thoughts, and if needed, repeat the question to be certain you heard it correctly and to benefit other audience members. If a question is confusing, overly complex, inappropriate, or unrelated, seek to improve the question. This is a proven method for dealing with difficult questions. Create a win-win-win for questioner, speaker, and audience.

Tip #5 Answer, elaborate, summarize

A well-thought-out response includes a succinct answer using clear language, one piece of supporting evidence or an example, and a summary to tie the answer to a key point. Use the Q&A to clarify and emphasize the main ideas presented in a way that addresses the audience’s needs. With practice and preparation, the Q&A can be a high point of a presentation.

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

How do you deal with difficult questions?

Chapter 36 in Communicating Nutrition 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 to 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?”

How should you prepare for questions?

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 takeaway 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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