Preparing for presentations in English –answering questions

Kirsty giving English lessons to students at a table

People can spend a lot of time preparing their English presentations, but often they don’t plan for what might happen in a question and answer session at the end.

It’s true that not all presentations are followed by a question and answer session, but if yours will be, it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about the kind of questions that might come up, and how you would answer them – in English.

First let’s look at the reasons why people ask questions after could be because they:
1. Want to find out further information about a particular point.
2. Didn’t understand something.
3. Didn’t agree with something and want to challenge you.
4. Want to clarify what you said – to be sure that they understood it correctly.

You can never know exactly what questions will be asked, and you might do a load of preparation, only to find there are no questions at the end, but it’s good if you think about these things beforehand so that you are prepared:

1. Language

You may be able to talk about your topic all day long in your native language, but think about any points that are likely to come up, and make sure you feel comfortable talking about them in English. This means not only the points that you have rehearsed for your presentation, but other issues around the topic, and your ability to talk about it spontaneously. Is there any vocabulary that you need to look up beforehand?

Also, if other people are speaking English and it is not their native language, they may need a bit longer to express their question – so be patient. For some people, speaking another language in front of an audience is a normal thing, but for others it takes courage.

Depending on the size of the group, people may be reluctant to speak in English – could you provide a way for them to submit questions in writing/tweet questions/type them in a chat box if you are using video conferencing software?

Similarly, whether it’s a matter of language or acoustics in a large room, you may need to clarify the question if you didn’t hear or understand it, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. It’s better to check the question than to answer the wrong question!

2. Only answer the question

Today I was sent to a website that had over 2000 links on it an took an eternity to load. I gave up. It’s fine to add detail, but try to give succinct answers to questions. Talking more doesn’t always prove you know your stuff –often rambling on can be counterproductive because people lose interest.

3. Are there any contentious issues?

Are there people in your audience who are likely to disagree with any of your points, or request further information before they believe you? If so, think about how you would deal with this in English.

4. Could people want extra facts and figures?

If they do, there’s nothing wrong with saying that you’ll provide them later, particularly if it’s information that you don’t have to hand, but if you can anticipate any questions about data that people may ask, you can be well-prepared and have the information with you, even if you don’t choose to include that level of detail in your presentation.

5. You don’t have to answer every question

If someone keeps asking questions, and nobody else can get a word in, you don’t have to let them monopolise the talking time. Similarly, if someone wants to take you down a rabbit hole, with a discussion that is too specific and of little interest to everyone else, it’s fine to say that you will come back to the other person after the presentation. Rather than being rude, this shows that you value everyone’s time and don’t want to take it up with something that is not useful to them. If someone asks something that is too personal or completely irrelevant, you are not obliged to answer that either!

6. What is the audience most likely to be interested in?

It may be a generic presentation, but how much do you know about your audience? Are there particular parts of the presentation that are likely to be more relevant to them and generate questions? What will you do if there are too many questions for the time available? Is there some other way that participants can contact you?

7. What to do if you don’t know the answer

I think it’s often the case that people worry about not knowing the answer. If you don’t know the answer, it’s better to be honest and offer to get back to the person later, than to try and blag your way through, or give information that could later be proved to be incorrect. Nobody can be expected to know everything.

However, this isn’t an excuse for bad preparation – if you don’t know your subject area, it will reflect badly on you! Still, when it comes to more specific or complicated questions, there’s nothing wrong with saying that you’ll provide further information at a later date.

8. Spending too long on a particular topic

If the whole room wants to go deeper on a specific point, it might be a good idea. However, if it’s only one or two people, you need to be mindful of the time available and check whether there were any other questions or comments.

9. Written information

People process information in different ways. Consider whether you want to give a hand-out or a copy of the slides after the presentation. Then participants don’t need to take notes or check facts and figures, and if you’ve already covered something, you can explain that the details are in the hand-out.

10. What if there are no questions?

This isn’t always a bad thing. It could just mean that the attendees have understood everything. You may want to give them a way of asking questions if they think of one later (email/Twitter etc), but having no questions to answer isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might just mean that your presentation ends a bit earlier, or you could prepare a bit of extra information, or a deeper explanation about something on your slides that you could give to fill the time.

More from English with Kirsty

You may also be interested in my post on giving online presentations.
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Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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