“Any questions” is one of those phrases that seems to add fear to most presenters, sometimes more than the performance itself. To effectively prepare for any questions that might be asked the presenter should consider that in the construction of the presentation itself, develop an understanding of the purpose of questions after a presentation and prepare accordingly. An excellent presentation should prompt questions but they must not be a source of concern to the presenter.
Neither the presentation nor the question time is a test of the knowledge of the presenter. The purpose of any questions is to allow a deeper understanding of the topic as presented. This is true for every presentation whether at a scientific meeting or teaching session. At no point can all knowledge be known, displayed or tested. This must be clear in the construction and delivery of the presentation. Never be afraid that delivering a presentation requires encyclopaedic knowledge, it is about opinion, insights or concepts. Detailed knowledge is best transferred in a document, not a presentation.
The best way to prepare is to consider what questions the audience will have of the topic and answer those questions within the piece. It may be that questions raise themselves as this planning takes places but have no clear place within the piece itself. The good presenter will make note of these and determine an appropriate answer. Plan for the whole piece including any questions, not just the delivery of the p1.
The best advice for a presenter facing any questions is to remember that, as a speaker, you remain in charge, not the audience. Yours is the control, the option to accept a question and the time required to answer any questions. Remember as well that the chairman of the session or person introducing you is also there to maintain order and time. They will look after a speaker in the event of difficulties. As a presenter, maintain the position of authority given as part of the privilege of speaking. Importantly that means you should always insist on the last word. “And so, I would like to close by reminding you of my key message…”
It is good form and practice when asked a question to repeat it. This clarifies the meaning, allows all members of the audience to hear the question and allows the presenter time to prepare an answer. Remember the audience to whom the presentation (and this question) has been given and reply accordingly making every effort to utilise the structure of the piece as delivered including any motifs or themes and take the opportunity to re-iterate your key message. Be as brief as possible. Then seek another questioner.
Honesty is the best approach to answering any questions but keep a questioning mind as to the purpose of a question. It should only be about deeper understanding. Do not engage in controversy out with the original remit. Do not debate. Do not hypothesise or extrapolate even if invited. Remember that the time available for any questions and their answers is limited and that the interest of the audience is in the original message, not nuances and sub-topics. If a question strays out with this, it is entirely reasonable to respond, “Thank you for your question. I think that would be best dealt with between the two of us in the break.”
If there are any questions to which you have no answer, simply be honest. “I’m afraid I do not have that reference/ those figures/that paper. I will find the answer to your question and contact you with that information.” Offer to add it to the handout for all the audience. Never feel that your purpose is to hold all knowledge. It is better to be correct after the event than potentially make a mistake during the event. That is not the purpose of questions.
If faced with a comment and not a question, an exposition or flat contradiction of your point, be gracious but do not entertain a significant debate. Yours is the privilege and your opinion has been given primacy by the inviting committee whether that is an academic group or conference committee. Thank the speaker for their comments and acknowledge their position but repeat your opinion and if necessary, the justification for that. Importantly make sure that the last words spoken in the session are yours, not a contradiction from the floor. This is your privilege. If the speaker from the floor wishes to have their 10 minutes, they may apply next year.
If a questioner is aggressive, rude, or threatening defer to the chair, using body language but if necessary by direct request. There is no need to accept such behaviour whatever the status, intention or objection of the questioner. Be humble but firm and avoid entering into discussion. Ensure you, as the speaker, have your point heard, not that of an audience member. “I understand that we disagree. Perhaps we might discuss this later. Are there any other questions? No, in summary, my main message is…”
The purpose of any questions is to allow a deeper understanding of your message as delivered. It is not a test of your knowledge nor the opportunity for the audience to get their personal message across. This privilege has been given to you. Be honest and deferential but keep up your primacy of opinion and end with your own summary of the key point. Discussions after are seldom as charged as you fear and you can always bring a friend. Any questions?