Here at Spice! HQ, November’s theme is “Stand for Something”. The world becomes a better place when people stand up for their principles, for each other - and for themselves. It’s not always easy. Other people will have their own ideas and agendas, which might conflict with yours. When you take a stand you expose yourself judgment and confrontation. That’s pretty scary.
Debate and disagreement are important parts of leadership, but when you’ve worked hard on something and you care deeply about it, you don’t want others to tear down your efforts or co-opt them for their own purposes.
We’ve spoken with many, many people who fear being put on the spot. That makes sense - even the best leaders and public speakers are sometimes caught off guard. You’ll never be prepared for every situation, every question, ever reaction. But you can hone your ability to face these situations with grace and confidence.
There are many types of people who might raise their hands during a Q&A, but here are a few of the most challenging – and how to deal with them.
Manny wants everyone to know how smart he is. In fact, he’s much more interested in showing off his Very Large Brain than in having a genuine discussion or learning from your expertise.
How to deal with a Manny: Swallow your ego if you want to avoid a long, pointless debate. Try this: “That’s a very interesting comment. Maybe my new catering company does raise questions about the nature of reality, but that’s outside my area of expertise.” Then quickly (quickly!) find someone else with their hand up so that you can move on. Be prepared for the probability that Manny will approach you after the presentation to discuss his ideas further.
You’re talking about your plan to preserve wildlife habitat, but Scarlett wants to know how to keep raccoons from digging through her trash. She means well, but her comments are distracting and could derail your whole presentation.
How to deal with a Scarlett: Act quickly, politely and assertively to get back to the matter at hand. Try this: “That’s exactly why it’s so important to protect wildlife habitat - so that animals don’t have to look for food in the city!” Or, failing that: “I’d be happy to discuss this after the presentation. Now, does anyone have any thoughts about the proposed boundaries of the nature preserve?”
Skip doesn’t understand why you’re even talking about this. There’s nothing that can be done about the issue; if there was, somebody would have done it already. Skip doesn’t think your idea will work, and he wants everyone to know it.
How to deal with a Skip: Turn things around and ask him how he would solve the problem. Chances are, he doesn’t have an alternative to your proposal - and being forced to admit it just might quiet him down. On the other hand, he might surprise you with some valuable insight and ideas. If this tactic doesn’t work, offer Skip a way to submit his comments after the presentation.
Lucy “just wants to play the devil’s advocate” by disagreeing with everything you say. If you’re lucky, she has reliable data and well-considered arguments that add to the discussion. If you’re unlucky, she’s full of misinformation that confuses the audience. Either way, she’s probably taking up more than her fair share of your time.
How to deal with a Lucy: Fact-checking on the spot can be impossible, but if Lucy starts spouting misinformation you can fight back without sounding defensive. Try this: “I’m curious about where you got that information, because I’ve done a lot of research and it seems to be the opposite…” Offer to chat with her after the presentation. You can’t undo what she’s already said in front of the audience, but you can prevent further damage!
Paul has an axe to grind. Your presentation is about the public safety initiative that you’ve developed with the City, but in Paul’s mind you’re just a government lackey who needs to hear his complaints about his tax bill. Paul is likely to ignore time limits and doesn’t actually have a question. He’ll keep talking for as long as he feels like, and may end his tirade by storming out in a dramatic fashion.
How to deal with a Paul: A little preparation goes a long way. If you’re using a microphone, try to avoid giving audience members control over it. Recruit a helper to hold the audience mic - and make sure the don’t mind cutting people off if they start to ramble. Failing that, you’ll have to do it yourself.
Try this: “Thank you for that observation, but we’re getting off topic and we’re running out of time. Unless you have a question, I’ll have to move on to someone else.” Nobody wants to be rude, but you’ll be doing the rest of your audience a huge favour. You can always offer to speak privately or refer Paul to someone else, if you think it would be helpful.
Finally, remember that you don’t need to have all the answers. If you can’t answer somebody’s question, you can always offer to find out and get back to them. That way, you can build a relationship with them – turning a challenge into an opportunity to expand your network.
It all comes down to this: the world needs to hear what you have to say, and you need the satisfaction that comes from saying it. So do what you can to prepare, and then trust yourself to handle whatever arises.
Want to practice these and other skills for reacting on your feet? Our Fearless Public Speaking workshop of the month is Hold Your Own - an in-depth exploration of how to handle Q&As with confidence and poise. Sign up now!