How To Greet Tough Questions Without Defensiveness

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 17, 2014 – 5:34 am

If you react to a challenging question with defensiveness, your reaction will communicate volumes to your audience, which will speculate about its cause. They’ll conclude that your defensive behavior occurred for a reason—you have an unpleasant demeanor, you’re easily threatened, or the accusation being leveled against you is true.

But since defensive reactions are natural, advice that simply says “Don’t be defensive!” leaves most people without the tools they need to avoid them. Therefore, it may require you to redefine what a challenging question is—and is not.

Many people perceive challenging questions as unfriendly acts from audience members who are positioned against them and have incentive to make them look bad. Certainly, that happens. But in far more cases—the overwhelming majority—they’re questions from people whose genuine objections are centered around true concerns, rooted in a misunderstanding, or based on a previous experience that has nothing to do with you.

That question is out of line

That being the case, wouldn’t it be healthier for you to redefine challenging questions as opportunities to learn from their objections so that that you can offer effective responses? Wouldn’t it be even worse if a skeptical audience didn’t ask you challenging questions, preventing you from addressing their concerns at all?

When you respond to their questions, you’re actually offering two (hopefully complementary) responses: one through your words, and the other through the manner in which you deliver those words. Responding to objections using the right words is obviously preferable—but in many cases, your tone may be more important than the words you choose.

A Personal Experience

That point was seared into my memory a few years ago when I was hired to train a group of 100 military officials. As you might imagine, addressing that room was particularly intimidating, and I was more nervous than usual before beginning my presentation.

About two minutes into my opening, one of the attendees raised her hand and said, “I don’t think that’s right.” She then proceeded to tell the room why my opening point was wrong.

My internal reaction was immediate and powerful. My adrenaline—already surging—sent my heart racing even faster. In my mind, I was thinking that just two minutes into my presentation, her comment would undermine my credibility for the entire day. My internal monologue was full of self-doubt (and a few four-letter words). I was panicking.

Businessman Panic

But as profound as my physiological reaction was, I was fortunate enough to remember to change my internal monologue. I forced myself to change my “four-letter word” reaction to “Okay, I can handle this.” And then I reminded myself of the two words that allowed me to deliver an effective response: “Be open!”

I walked ever-so-slightly in her direction (physical proximity often softens the tone of a question or comment) and gave her my full attention. As soon as she completed her comment and the eyes of the room turned to me to gauge my reaction, I thanked her, turned to the rest of the group, and said, “I know that other people in this room probably have a similar view, and I’m glad she brought that up. Let’s talk about that.” My open and nondefensive reaction changed the mood in the room, resolved the tension that built up during her comment, and enhanced my credibility with the audience.

My handling of that situation didn’t come naturally for me, and it may not for you, either. I had to work hard to quickly replace my instinctive four-letter internal monologue with the essential phrase, “Be open!” When confronted with a similar situation, work hard to remember those two magic words.

Have you had a “four-letter word” moment during a presentation? Please share your story in the comments section below!

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Six Things To Do When You’re Stumped By A Question

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 10, 2014 – 6:02 am

One of the greatest fears public speakers have is being confronted by a question they don’t know the answer to.

Admittedly, there are times when not knowing an answer can make a presenter look bad. If you’re a political candidate who can’t answer a question about your own economic plan, for example, you’re going to receive negative media coverage. But in the vast majority of cases, not knowing an answer is okay—if you handle it well.

This post will offer you six ways to handle a question that stumps you.


Man Clueless or Perplexed About Something

1. Pause

Letting a few seconds elapse between a question and your response may feel like an eternity to you—but it doesn’t to the audience. Pausing to think also conveys to the audience that you’re taking their questions seriously, not offering canned answers.

2. Punt

If you’re temporarily unable to think of an answer, you can tell the questioner that you’d like to think about the question for a few minutes and that you’ll come back to them later (“That’s an important issue, and I’d like to think about it for a few minutes before responding.”).

3. Ask Them To Elaborate

Ask questioners to elaborate upon their main point. Oftentimes, people become more specific when they restate their question, which makes it easier for you to understand and respond.

4. Turn To The Audience

Don’t be afraid to use your audience as a resource. If stumped, you can ask the audience to share their knowledge and experience with the questioner (“I know we have some people in the audience who have dealt with that issue before. How have you handled it?”).

5. Tell Them What You Know

Sometimes, knowing a specific answer isn’t as important as providing a general response. In those cases, it’s okay to tell the questioner what you do know, not what you don’t. As an example, if you work for an office supply company and someone asks what percentage of your sales last year were for recycled paper, you might say, “I don’t know the specific number, but what I can tell you is that recycled paper sales continue to grow steadily and we’ve given more shelf space to the product due to increased consumer demand.” You might pair that response with the final tip below.

6. Use These Seven Words

This final point is a critical one that should permanently eradicate most of your fears about being stumped. If you don’t know an answer, just say these seven words: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Then, follow up as promised. If you have a website, blog, or social media account, you can even tell your audience that you’ll post the answer within 48 hours for anyone who’s interested. That seven-word sentence is an especially powerful resource for speakers with perfectionist tendencies, since it reminds them that they’re allowed to be—and should be—human in front of their audiences.

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Seven Rules Of Engagement For Managing Q&A (Part Two)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 9, 2014 – 6:02 am

In yesterday’s post, you learned the first four rules of engagement for managing the all-important Q&A period. In today’s post, you’ll learn three more.

5. Keep Your Answers Brief

You’ve worked hard during your presentation to remain focused on your big shiny object and choose your words with precision. Apply that same discipline to the audience Q&A, and avoid the far-too-common problem of speakers who offer six-minute rambles where 30-second answers would suffice.

Long answers chill the room. Audience members are quick to detect the pattern of a speaker who offers seemingly endless answers—and their questions quickly dry up when they realize further questions would subject them to another interminable monologue.

Keep your answers short. Aim for one minute or less. If you’re generally successful at keeping your answers succinct, the audience will forgive an occasional extended response.

Answering Audience Questions African American Man iStockPhoto PPT


6. Draw Out Your Audience

When speakers ask their audience for questions, they often see a collection of blank stares facing back at them. That moment is understandably difficult for many presenters—two seconds of quiet feels like an eternity—so they conclude that the audience has nothing to say and end the session after just a few seconds of silence.

As a professional presenter, I’ve encountered audiences that are quieter than others. But almost all of them can be drawn out—if you create a climate that encourages interaction.

Let’s say you begin by asking, “What questions or thoughts do you have about my proposal?” No one responds. Here are a few things you could try next:

Wait: People detest a vacuum. Long silences are uncomfortable. If you simply stand confidently and wait, someone in the audience will usually speak up.

Ask the Audience a Question: If no one speaks up after several seconds of silence, you can ask the audience a question. (“During my presentation, I mentioned one possible approach to raise more money from donors by selling licensed merchandise. What advantages or disadvantages do you see with that approach?”) If no one responds, you can call on a few people.

Prompt the First Question: To ease the audience in, you can bring up and answer a question that you’re often asked about your topic—or a question that you had to contemplate when developing your presentation.

End the Session: Gracefully thank your audience, deliver your second close, and invite the audience to approach you with any thoughts or questions after the session ends. Don’t assume that the audience’s lack of feedback was a sign of failure (and don’t convey, through your words or body language, that you thought it was). You may have been so effective in delivering your presentation that they understood it thoroughly and are processing your information. To help determine the root cause of your audience’s silence, analyze why you didn’t receive input by reflecting upon your presentation, speaking to the meeting planner or a few participants to discuss what worked and what didn’t, and evaluating the results of your post-presentation survey.

Woman gesturing with her hand while a business team is watching her


7. Assign Roles For Team Presentations

If you’re presenting as part of a team, decide in advance which team members will answer questions about which topics. For example, you might assign questions about a project’s timeline to Susan, the project’s cost to Rick, and the project’s architectural design to Raheem. Doing so helps prevent the awkwardness of deciding in front of the audience who should answer which questions.

Also, resist the urge to add something to an answer given by a co-presenter if they offered a sufficient response. Too often, team members compete for “talk time” by unnecessarily adding their thoughts to another team member’s answer, which can slow down the Q&A period.

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Seven Rules Of Engagement For Managing Q&A (Part One)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 8, 2014 – 6:02 am

Too often, speakers spend weeks carefully crafting their presentations but fail to prepare adequately for their audience’s questions. As a result, they deliver a successful presentation only to become derailed during the question and answer interaction.

One bad response can be all it takes for speakers to diminish—or even reverse—the good impression they established during their presentation. This week, we’ll focus on the question and answer period to make sure you take advantage of those critical minutes.

1. Set Time Expectations

If your presentation doesn’t have a firm ending time, tell the audience for how long you intend to take questions. If the audience knows you’ll wrap up the session in 15 minutes, they’re less likely to be distracted by the phone call they have to make, their biological needs (“When can I go to the bathroom already?), or their growing hunger.

If you don’t tell them, they’ll become uneasy, as they don’t know whether they’ll be stuck in the room with you for 10 minutes or an hour. You can eliminate this step if your session is time limited—the audience will understand that a 50-minute conference breakout session will predictably end at 50 minutes past the hour.

Audience Questions Hands Raised


2. Invite Audience Participation Using The Right Phrases

When most speakers open the floor to questions, they ask, “Does anyone have a question?” That question often fails to elicit a response. One reason is that whereas only a few people in your audience may have a question, many more likely have thoughts, opinions, or comments about the material you presented. You can encourage more participation if you use those words when soliciting feedback from your audience instead of—or alongside—the word “question.”

Ken Molay, president of the firm Webinar Success, says that another problem with the “Does anyone have a question” approach is that it doesn’t place personal responsibility onto any single member of the audience to act. As better alternatives, he advises clients to change that question to “Do you have a question?” or “What are your thoughts?” Although those questions can be addressed to the full audience, the use of the pronoun you may prompt a more active response.

An even stronger cue, Molay says, is to give the audience a direct command to take action in a specific way: “Now it’s your turn to guide the discussion. What should I clarify or go into more detail on?”

Audience Raising Hands


3. Repeat the Question or Comment

There’s usually no need to repeat (or summarize) an audience member’s comment or question when speaking to smaller groups in smaller rooms, or in larger groups when questioners use a microphone.

But repeating an audience member’s question is imperative when: The audience size or room is large enough that some people might not hear the question; the person asking the question is soft-spoken; or the session is being recorded and questioners do not use a microphone.

You don’t have to repeat back each question in its entirety, but make sure you include the heart of the question in your summarized version.

Businessman holding a microphone while looking at a business team with raised arms


4. Avoid Negative Language

Neurophysiologist Rick Hanson writes that, “Your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones…Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones.” Since negative words or experiences tend to be more memorable than positive ones, it’s best to remove any negative language when restating a question posed by an audience member.

For example, a member of the audience—a person who rents apartments from your management company—might say, “We’ve been complaining about the noise for a year, and you’ve done nothing about it. It’s obvious that all you care about is money.”

When repeating back the comment to the audience, don’t say:

She says that all we care about is money and that we haven’t addressed the noise problem.”

Instead, strip away the negative language when restating the comment:

“I understand that you’re concerned about the noise. Let me tell you what we’ve done to address the noise problem.”

Click here for part two of this post!


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When Things Go Wrong: Slow Down To Speed Up

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 27, 2014 – 6:02 am

Things go wrong during presentations. There’s no way to entirely prevent that from happening. What you can control is your reaction to what goes wrong—and people who react well during tough moments take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to impress their audiences.

Let’s say your PowerPoint projector suddenly goes dead. Many speakers would immediately get nervous, scramble frantically to reconnect the wires, and apologize to their audiences for the glitch (“I’m so sorry, I tested this before I began. This is so embarrassing!”).

Instead, the best thing to do during those moments is to slow down. Everyone in the room knows the projector just went dead. Calmly—and deliberately—turn to the projector to check the connections. Calmly check the power supply. Calmly press the on-off switch. If none of those things work, calmly look up and ask someone to get help—or, even better, tell the audience you’ll try to fix the equipment during the next break but that you’re going to keep going.

No apologies, no excuses. Just a professional speaker reacting to an unexpected technical failure with an impressive display of control.

Man Zen Yoga Rock PPT iStock Photo

The same strategy applies if you misplace a page in your notes. Stop talking, slowly flip through your notes to locate the correct page, and calmly look up and resume your talk when you find it.

The same strategy applies if your microphone cuts in and out. Calmly smile and request a new microphone or, for smaller audiences, go without one.

I call this “slowing down to speed up” because I’ve regularly observed that speakers who slow down during challenging moments solve their challenges more quickly. (Although I came up with that phrase independently, many others have used that phrase in similar contexts.) 

Finally, consider selling unexpected circumstances as a virtue. For example, most speakers are mortified when only six people show up to their breakout room that was set for one hundred. Instead, sell it as a positive to the six people who showed up: “I’m so glad this is a small group, because we’ll have an opportunity to really talk and help solve one another’s challenges. How about you all move up to the front, I’ll come join you, and we’ll just talk?”

Remember: When things go wrong, project a quiet calm. Slow down to speed up.

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Everyone Agrees: Ditch The PowerPoint! They’re Wrong.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 23, 2014 – 9:15 pm

National Public Radio recently ran a piece with an attention-grabbing headline:

Physicists, Generals And CEOs Agree: Ditch The PowerPoint

Like similar stories before it, the argument went as follows: PowerPoint prevents two-way engagement, PowerPoint makes the speaker go on autopilot, PowerPoint prevents people from reducing their points to their critical core.

As one Rutgers professor said, “The main advantage of forgoing PowerPoint is that it forces both the speaker and the listener to pay attention.”

But the story—and the people quoted in it—are blaming the wrong problem. PowerPoint isn’t the problem. It’s a tool that’s only as good—or as bad—as its users. The problem is the misuse of PowerPoint by far too many speakers.

Pendulum Ball

Don’t buy into articles that suggest PowerPoint is all good or all bad. It’s true that the pendulum swung too far in the direction of ubiquitous and poorly planned PowerPoint presentations, and it’s good that it’s swinging back in the opposite direction. But these articles are suggesting a pendulum swing to an opposite—but still problematic—extreme.

I’m struck in particular by generals removing PowerPoint from their rhetorical arsenal. Shouldn’t generals, more than most of the rest of us, value keeping as many potential tools in their toolkits as possible and knowing exactly which tools to deploy, and when, and how?

Here’s what we know: PowerPoint can help people make longer-lasting, deeper, and more meaningful connections when used sparingly and strategically. Some presentations may never need PowerPoint. Some may be stronger without it. But that’s not always the case.

An Example

One client wanted to make a crucial point to his employees about the increasing cost of electronic storage for his firm. “This is how much data we’re storing today,” he said, as a giant black circle filled the screen. “Three years ago,” he continued, “this is how much we were storing.” As he delivered that line, he clicked again and an almost imperceptible white circle appeared in one corner, atop the giant black circle. The audience gasped. 

Sure, he could have said that verbally instead, perhaps by drawing a clever analogy. But I watched the reaction in the room as he delivered that slide, and it’s difficult for me to believe that anything would have been more effective.

He used PowerPoint sparingly and strategically. So should you. Ask yourself whether a visual representation of your spoken point would do more to enhance your audience’s understanding. If it would, use one. If it wouldn’t, ditch it. 

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Speed Up: How To Stop Being A Slow Talker

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 18, 2014 – 6:02 am

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Smart Speaking: 60-Second Strategies For More Than 100 Speaking Problems and Fears by Laurie Schloff and Marcia Yudkin.

If your conversational partner has mentally formulated her five-year business plan by the time you finish a sentence, or if your audience is tapping fingers and feet impatiently while you’re finishing the first paragraph of your talk, it’s safe to say you’re too slow.

A colleague told me he recently walked out of a lecture at a conference and demanded the return of his thirty-five dollar registration fee. The reason? He clocked the speaker at ninety words per minute—about half the average speaking speed.

Some slow talkers do everything at tortoise pace, including speaking. Others take great pain with their speech because they believe everything that comes out of their mouth must be correct, perfectly worded, and significant. It’s admirable to care about what you say, but if you speak too slowly, you may be perceived as boring, tired, or less intelligent than you are. To keep people awake and interested, learn to increase your speaking speech without losing articulation and thought clarity.

Smart Speaking Book Cover

1. Learn what makes you slow

Record a one-minute monologue on tape. Use a stopwatch or second hand and listen for the following types of slow spots.

Problem one: Too many words along the way to your point.

“As I was mentioning yesterday when we met with um, ah, Anderson Industries about the takeover negotiations and ah, proceeded to come up with an alternate plan, I told you I’d be getting back you, and so let me introduce our findings by saying…”


“Let me bring you up to date on our talks with Anderson Industries … “

Problem Two: a generally draggy pace, with both words and pauses drawn out. Audiences prefer an average rate of 180 words per minute or even a little faster.

Problem Three: Pauses that are too frequent or too lengthy. Pauses between sentences should not last much longer than two seconds unless you’re consciously pausing to let information sink in or for dramatic effect.

Boring Seminar

2. Try These Speed Up Strategies

For Problem One: To practice getting to the point more quickly, ask yourself an opinion question. Using a stopwatch or second hand, give yourself forty-five, then thirty, then twenty seconds to supply an answer. This is a vital skill for any media appearance.

For Problem Two: To pick up the pace, choose a passage from a magazine or book of about 180 words. Practice reading it aloud, seeing how close you can get to finishing it in one minute without sacrificing meaning or clarity.

For Problem Three: Accept that in most situations it is not necessary to deliver a perfectly shaped gem worthy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Imagine your words pedaling the wheels of a bicycle: if you drop the pace too drastically, you’ll fall over. Practice keeping up momentum while answering questions that you’re posing to yourself for the first time.

This is an excerpt from Smart Speaking: 60-Second Strategies For More Than 100 Speaking Problems and Fears by Laurie Schloff and Marcia Yudkin.


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Slow Down: How To Stop Being A Fast Talker

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 17, 2014 – 6:02 am

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Smart Speaking: 60-Second Strategies For More Than 100 Speaking Problems and Fears by Laurie Schloff and Marcia Yudkin.

Some fast talkers come from families where there is a lot of competition for the floor. Fast talking was originally a way to get their parents’ attention, and the habit stuck. Others come from families that seem to have a genetic speed streak—they walk fast, work fast, and also talk fast.

Some people race talk because they feel no one really wants to listen to them. They don’t like to listen to themselves speak and want to get it over with as soon as possible. Finally, rapid speech can be a sign of stress. When your body is feeling great pressure, all your bodily rhythms speed up including speech.

The good news about fast-talking is that studies show listeners prefer a faster-than-average speaking rate to a slower-than-average rate. The bad news is that speaking at a breakneck speed can leave a negative impression. If you are talking so fast that people find you hard to understand or wonder why you’re so eager to “get it over with,” start slowing down your speech with this technique.

Smart Speaking Book Cover

1. Use the One-Two technique.

Count “one-two” in your head at natural pauses between phrases, sentences, and items in a list. The extra second will help you control your breathing better and allow time for listeners to absorb what you’ve said.

Example: “I’m glad to be meeting you today [one-two]. Before we get on with our agenda [one-two], I’d like to ask each of you [one-two] to introduce yourself [one-two] and tell us a bit about your company.”

2. Practice the One-Two technique while reading a newspaper or a magazine article aloud.

Use a tape recorder to double-check that you’ve really allowed the pause it takes to say “one-two.”

Once when I discussed speech improvement techniques at an attorney’s association, a young woman attorney came up to me afterwards and said she wondered if it might be a good idea for her to talk fast. “Why?” I asked. “Because my clients are poor, and that way they get their money’s worth,” she said.

“Well, not if the clients have to spend an extra half hour asking you to repeat what they didn’t understand the first time,” I replied.

This is an excerpt from Smart Speaking: 60-Second Strategies For More Than 100 Speaking Problems and Fears by Laurie Schloff and Marcia Yudkin.

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    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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