Public speaking – How to answer a difficult question

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

One of the questions I am most often asked by people who want to improve their public speaking is “What do I do if someone in the audience asked me a difficult question?” Of course, there are a bunch of techniques to make this easier… but for right now, I want to challenge you on the question that YOU’RE asking.

The quality of your life depends on the quality of the questions you ask

It is often said that the quality of a person’s life depends on the quality of the questions they ask. I’m not sure where this quote came from in the first place, but something similar was certainly said by Anthony Robbins.

Or from a slightly different angle and several centuries earlier, Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

So instead of impatiently trying to get the end game as we often do – by finding out how to answer a difficult question – let’s look at what is behind your drive to “handle” difficult questions in the first place. It is a fear-based question based on the illusion that the audience is in some way threatening.

Imagine speaking in public is a spectrum. At one end (the easy end) there is the simple task of having a one-to-one conversation about your holiday with your friend in the relaxed environment of a café. At the other end (the end that people fear) there is the task of standing on the stage in front of 300 people talking about a subject which requires you to have credibility.

The more that you can experience public speaking in the same way that you experience having a chat with a friend, the more confident, authentic, and impactful you will be.

If you imagine that relaxed scenario, you would never ask “What do I do if my friend asks me a difficult question?” That would be unthinkable! Hopefully you can now see what is behind the question – a presupposition that the audience is in some way hostile, that you were under threat, and you need techniques to survive it.

Let’s take another example…

Imagine there is a plank on the ground – it is about 30 cm wide, and it runs all the way along the length of whatever room you happen to be sitting in. If I asked you to walk across it and successfully arrive at the other end, you would probably be very confident that you could achieve that. If however, the plank were raised high into the air and suspended across the tops of 2 high-rise buildings where failure meant certain death, the perceived risk would make you a lot more nervous.

Speaking in public has a lot of “perceived risk,” and that tends to create a desire to avoid or control. Most people completely avoid opportunities to speak in public, and the sad truth is that it really limits their self-expression and also their career potential. For those who have the courage to feel the fear and do it anyway, control seemed like a good way to survive it.

Instead of worrying whether or not the audience is going to ask you a difficult question, consider that if they ask you a question at all then they must have been listening in the first place, which is half the battle – awesome!

My hope is that you’ll shift your perspective on this. Stop worrying about this “low-value” question: “What if they asked me difficult question?” Instead, swap it for a high-value question such as “How can I truly connect with my audience?” The plank is not thousands of meters in the air, and you are not going to die if you stumble or stutter!

Cath’s 4 Cs Methodology

Anyway, here are a few tips in my 4 Cs methodology to help you on your way if you still have concerns:

Cath’s 4 Cs Methodology

Here’s what to do if anyone in the audience asks you a question:

  • Cheer! – You should probably only cheer inwardly, but the point is that if someone is actually asking a question then you should be delighted, so receive every question enthusiastically! Be sure to show your excitement and appreciation that someone is engaging with you.

  • Create – Often when an audience member asks a question usually without a microphone, they cannot be heard by the rest of the audience. So if you’re not careful, you end up answering something that nobody else is engaged with. It’s important to create the scope of the question so everyone is involved in the discussion, and it also provides clarity by putting boundaries around what you intend to answer in that moment. Buy yourself some time and share the question with the rest of the audience by repeating it. Steps 1 and 2 would look something like this “Thank you for the question! So, the question was… [repeat question whilst looking at the wider audience].”

  • Choose – Decide whether or not to answer the question (yes, you have a choice!). It may not have occurred to you before, but you don’t have to answer a question just because someone asks it! Your duty is to the whole audience. And if you get a curveball question, it may not be to the benefit of the room for you to go down a rabbit hole with this one attendee. Reserve the right to choose whether you answer the question or not; after all, you’re the one at the front of the room.

  • Complete – Whether you choose to answer the question then and there or defer it, in either case, you want completion. If you answer it immediately, you might follow-up with “Does that answer the question?” If you defer it, make sure that you give the attendee the rock-solid undertaking that you will complete on the question either immediately after the event or later by email (put the onus on them to come and find you to make sure that happens).

These tips will certainly help you in answering difficult questions – or any question at all. But when you get truly happy and confident in speaking to any audience size, you will no longer perceive any question as difficult.

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