How to respond to tough questions in a pitch

By John Scarrott

In some ways, questions during a pitch or presentation are a bit like a ride on a rollercoaster. You want to look, and at the same time, cover your eyes. The five steps that follow will calm your nerves, enable you to prepare well and enjoy the ride with your eyes open.

  • Work it out before the presentation
  • Practise, as if it’s the real thing
  • Get comfortable with welcoming unexpected questions
  • Perform your answer
  • Ask questions of your own

Work it out before the presentation

Work out what you’re going to do, when the question is asked that you don’t know the answer to. Anxiety is caused by uncertainty and possibility. That’s why questions make us nervous. They could be about anything. The key to confidence is to create some certainty for yourself. Imagine the questions that might come up. Brainstorm with a colleague.

Practise, as if it’s the real thing

When you rehearse your presentation, ask some colleagues to be the audience and brief them to ask as many awkward questions as possible. The act of rehearsing will enable you to get more comfortable. Make a note of the responses you find tricky and rework your responses afterwards.

Then practise your responses a couple of times out loud. By the way, you’ll probably hate this. But better to hate it before the presentation and win the pitch than at the presentation and lose it.

Get comfortable with welcoming unexpected questions

Welcome the question and smile. Say something truthful, because your audience will be able to detect when you’re not and so will you. Neither is a good situation. You could say, “I hoped you were going to ask me that because that’s something I’ve been thinking about.” Or “Thank you” Or simply say, “Ah!” (as in ‘wonder’ not ‘panic’). Make this what you feel. Even if you’ve been knocked for six by the question, find a way to say that. For example, if it’s a new question, say, “that’s new for me”. Try and avoid saying “What a good question!” It can become repetitive and when you don’t say it you may offend your audience.

Perform your answer

Create some drama when you answer. For this, make sure there’s a flip chart to hand. During your introduction, say that you might use it. Then, when you get a question that you think merits special attention (difficult, challenging ones are the best) walk over to the flip chart. Head up the blank sheet “Good questions” (or something like that). Pause and then repeat the question back to the enquirer. Check you heard it correctly. And then write up the question that’s been asked. Pause. And then ask

again, “have I got that right?” Then you could answer it, if you can. Or you might say, “I have a few thoughts, before I share them, what do you think?” This depends on the nature of the question of course.

Ask questions of your own

Another way to create some certainty around questions is to ask some of your own. Why should your audience be the only ones that can ask something? This is especially good after you’ve made a key point. For this, you need to decide beforehand when you’re going to ask your question. A good time is at the halfway point in your presentation. Here’s how:

Firstly, let your point settle and pause. And then say: “Can I ask at this point how this is landing with you?” And scan the room. Pause here to give your audience a little space to think. Because they may not be ready for your question. But that’s ok. Then when they answer, you listen and you can respond, say thank you and make a note of what they say. Perhaps a question will surface that you can add to the flipchart.

With these techniques, you can start to create some certainty for yourself that will calm your nerves around questions.

A final thought. When you’re in a meeting or presentation, how many experts are in the room? And on what? What if you considered the room as a group of people working together to find an answer, everyone on the same side. This may remove the notion of ‘questions as being something to fear’ by replacing it with something a bit more collaborative and ‘questions as the route to progress’.

Creating some certainty for yourself around questions allows you to open your eyes and enjoy the presentation, all the ups and downs, twists and turns. And that increases your chance of a positive result.

John Scarrott is a Trainer and Coach working with design professionals on their approach to influential communication. Find him on Twitter @JohnDScarrott or check out his website where you can find other useful articles on this subject.

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