Speaker Etiquette: How to Answer Bad Questions

Bad questions can make holding your audience’s attention difficult, but you shouldn’t let them ruin your experience. Here are some of the most common types of bad questions and tips for answering them.

bad questions

Questions that only apply to the person who asked them

It is important to acknowledge the person who has a personal question without alienating others in the room. To achieve this, provide a potential solution to the individual’s problem, and then broaden your answer to apply to the entire room.

For example, if a student presents you with a personal problem related to her leadership team and asks for advice, briefly offer advice for that specific question, then transition with, “And for other students who face challenges similar to this, I advise …” Keeping the specific answer brief will allow you to reign in everyone’s attention when you transition to advice that can apply to the broader group.

Questions your presentation already answered

Although you may be annoyed that your audience wasn’t paying attention, don’t belittle them. Audiences have many distractions, and insulting someone for missing something you already addressed will lower your credibility. When someone asks a question that you already answered, avoid using phrases such as, “As I previously mentioned” or “If you were paying attention …”

Answer the question as you would any other, and then add a new twist or piece of information that adds value for the audience that heard the answer the first time. This will allow you to keep the full audience’s attention and respect.

Questions from a microphone hog

The best way to avoid a microphone hog is to set ground rules before the Q&A starts. If you politely ask the audience to ask one question at a time and someone still asks two or three, answer the second and third as briefly as possible, say thank you and acknowledge the next person in line verbally and with eye contact. If a person will not leave the microphone, gently ask he allow the others in line to ask their questions and offer to speak with the individual after the Q&A ends.

For people who have multiple questions, make it known that you will be available after your speech for further discussion, or leave your email address so they can follow up.

Questions that are, for lack of a better word, stupid

People who say there are no stupid questions haven’t heard enough presentations. A stupid question is spotted the easiest by the rest of the audience’s reaction. If the audience rolls their eyes, mutters under their breath or stares at the speaker in disbelief, you may have just been asked a stupid question. Go with it as best you can, depending on the situation.

If the audience member clearly thinks he asked a smart question, you must answer respectfully, in the same tone that you would answer any other question.

If the question is humorous, and the audience member clearly intended it to be that way, play along, and use it as an opportunity to keep your audience entertained.

Questions that stump you

In a low-pressure setting, you can simply say you are sorry you don’t know the answer, then exchange cards with the person who asked so you can do some research and follow up with an answer.

In a high-pressure situation in which saying you do not know could make you appear unprepared or uninformed, it’s not as easy. First, remain confident and calm even if you have absolutely no idea what the answer is. Second, consider asking a follow-up question if you can provide a decent answer by garnering more information.

If you truly have no clue, try bridging. Acknowledge that you don’t have the statistic or piece of information top of mind, transition into what you do know, and end by saying that you understand that did not completely answer the person’s question but that you can follow up after the presentation with a better answer.


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