Tackling Questions with Confidence (Judie Fertig Panneton)

When I teach public speaking classes to California workers, I remind them how important it is to listen to an entire question before offering an answer. It’s human nature to guess where a question is headed as it is being asked, but it’s not in anyone’s best interest.

A perfect example of how jumping to conclusions can steer you in the wrong direction is demonstrated in a conversation between media mogul Oprah Winfrey and actor/writer Tina Fey during an Oprah Winfrey Show episode. Fey asked Winfrey, “If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, in the history of the world,” Fey begins, “What would you order?”

Winfrey, taken by surprise, pauses, laughs, and answers, “I would probably you know, have Jesus over for fried chicken,” Oprah says. “That would be great.”

Unexpected questions provoke a few laughs in the right situations and enormous fear in others.

There are some tips, however, to make questions less scary and to help you feel in control:

  • DO YOUR HOMEWORK:  Whenever you’re preparing a speech, think of the questions that you expect to be asked. How about the ones that make you a little weak in the knees?  Write them down and add the answers so that you can practice to keep your messages as clear and concise as possible.
  • SET THE RULES FOR QUESTIONS FROM THE START:  Envision the question-and-answer period ahead of time. Do you want questions while you’re speaking or after?  Let people know from the start and whether there are time limits.  Ground rules like those help everyone stay on the same page.
  • TREAT QUESTIONS WITH RESPECT AND COURTESY:  This rule pertains to the questions you like and the ones that you’re not particularly fond of. You stay in control when don’t take questions personally. Don’t judge a question. Answer it.
  • REPEAT THE QUESTION:  By repeating the question, it assures you heard it correctly, offers an opportunity to stand corrected, is a courtesy to others so that they hear it right, and it buys you some extra time to craft an answer.
  • STORYTELLER QUESTIONS:  To prevent someone from telling a story before asking a question, when calling on someone, try talk show host Larry King’s method of asking, “Your question please?”

Also, never let the questioner hold the microphone because if you do, that person will have control.  (You don’t want to get into an amplified wrestling match.)

  • CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC: Acknowledge in your presentation that some people may disagree with some thoughts on the topic. Then, if there are hostile questions, remember that the hostility is about the topic, not about you.
  • TURN THE TABLES:  If your answer to a question is not satisfactory to the person in the audience who won’t let it go, turn the tables and ask, “Do you have some of your own thoughts on that question?”  Giving a person a chance to air his/her thoughts, might be enough to keep things calm and the session flowing.
  • INSINUATING QUESTIONS: When a questioner insinuates that, for example, your timetable for adopting a new policy is too lengthy, sidestep the questioner’s judgment and dive into the reasoning for the timetable’s schedule.
  • IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER:  Be honest.  Don’t guess.  No one’s perfect.  Offer to provide an answer if the person will contact you at the email address or phone number you provide.
  • UNASKED QUESTIONS:  If there’s a question that you think should have been asked but was not, offer it yourself without insulting your audience.  Instead of saying something like, “I’m surprised no one asked this question…,” say, “Here’s another question that may be helpful….”
  • TIME’S UP:  End a question-and-answer period on a positive note.  Avoid phrases like, “I guess there aren’t any more questions,” or “Since we’re out of time….”

Choose instead something like, “Thank you for your thoughtful questions and if you have more in the future, here’s how you can reach me…”

  • KEEP THE RIGHT PERSPECTIVE: Answering questions is an opportunity for you to show what you know and to demonstrate your skills as a communicator.

Remember, public speaking and answering questions can be seen as either a burden or an opportunity. How are they be viewed by you?


Judie PannetonJudie Fertig Panneton is a published author and an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years experience in newspapers, magazines, television and radio. She is a first-generation American. Her father was born in Holland; her mother in Poland.

She has written two books based on a collection of stories. Her latest is PROUD AMERICANS: GROWING UP AS CHILDREN OF IMMIGRANTS.