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They Won’t Throw Tomatoes… But It’ll Probably Hurt Just as Much

“They Won’t Throw Tomatoes… But It’ll Probably Hurt Just as Much”

There are some basic variables in successful public speaking. This article recounts them and offers advice on mastering these variables to better ensure success in addressing an audience.

Not every presentation is going to come off as successfully as you’d like. You have bad days and so does your audience. Learn to make the best of a bad situation through a little bit of planning and the necessary knowledge to deal with a less-than friendly audience.Your worst nightmare is about to come true. You have just completed your presentation thinking that it went pretty well and are gearing up for the final phase, the question and answer period. You’re looking around the room, hoping to see a smile, a friendly face, a sympathetic someone with their hand raised. But that’s not what appears in front of you. Instead, you begin to sense hostility. No one is smiling, and the first question just about knocks your breath out. Your stomach falls to the floor as you try to think of the right answer, but as you begin to hem and haw and sweat, your audience begins to leave the room.

But, wait. Let’s backtrack here for a minute. Could you have saved this situation? What steps should you have taken to make sure you were prepared for this “worst case” scenario? All too often, a dynamic speech is ruined by a poor performance during the closing minutes of the presentation when the question and answer period is held. And the usual reason for this is simple — poor preparation, or no preparation at all. Many speakers feel so confident about their subject that they believe they will be able to “wing it” at the end — and do it successfully. In my more than twenty years of experience as a speaker and trainer, I have found this to be true:

Although you cannot plan for the question and answer period as precisely as you can for your own presentation, you can be prepared, and you can cope with a hostile audience. Here’s how I prepare for a question and answer period, and these recommendations will work whether your audience has their teeth bared — or are smiling up at you.


Know your subject, and know it cold. There’s nothing that will be detected quicker than a speaker who doesn’t know what she or he is talking about. Your preparation should include anticipating who will ask them. This is common practice for lawyers preparing witnesses and essential procedure for politicians before a press conference or a debate. Some questioners will be trying to put you on the spot — show off their own knowledge, or impress a boss or co-worker. By learning about your audience in advance, you can be prepared with information and the correct response to help reinforce your message. Of course when speaking before a very large group, it may not be possible to anticipate what you will be asked, but as long as you know at least as much if not more about your subject than your audience, your confidence level should carry you safely through even the roughest interrogation.


Even though you have a wealth of information to share with your audience, you should not forget that the “Q&A” period is not the time for a lengthy discourse. Answer the questioner as briefly and as succinctly as possible, but don’t give away anymore information than you have to. Save some for follow-up questions. With a long-winded response you also run the risk of boring the rest of the audience — and lose even those who were with you in the beginning. If you feel it is appropriate, tell your questioner you will be available after the presentation to give a more detailed answer.


If a questioner asks you something you don’t know — never, ever try to bluff your way through. I guarantee you’ll be found out. The best answer is an honest one. Simply say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, and I will find out and get back to you quickly if you will give me your name and address at the end of this session.” Then make sure you do follow up. An honest answer may not make a hostile questioner any nicer, but you will look good in the eyes of the rest of the audience. Here are some tricks I have used successfully to diffuse even hostile questioners:

  • Rephrase the question before answering — this gives you some extra time to formulate your response.
  • Use the question as a way to reinforce your views.
  • Instead of getting defensive, use humor or a short anecdote to lighten the mood.
  • If you can’t answer exactly what you were asked, talk about an aspect you do know about.
  • Don’t take hostility personally, and don’t let the situation get our of hand. Stay calm and focused and, above all, be courteous to the questioner.


All successful question-and-answer periods have something in common. The speaker maintains control of the room. You don’t want to appear rigid or unapproachable, merely in control. This requires you to be prepared, to use finesse when answering and to enjoy the opportunity the question and answer period gives you to shine. Use this time as a chance to get to know your audience better, to share some useful information with them and to let them get to know you even better. A successful question and answer session can help to end your presentation on an upbeat note — and when you’ve learned to deal successfully with hostility, you and your audience will both be the winners.

About the Writer: Marjorie Brody is President of Brody Communications, Ltd., a Jenkintown, PA-based communications consultancy specializing in workshops and seminars for presentation skills training. She is the co-author of “Power Presentations: How to Connect With An Audience and Sell Your Ideas” (John Wiley 1993) as well as “Complete Business Etiquette Handbook” (Prentice Hall 1994) and “Business Etiquette” (McGraw-Hill 1994). Marjorie is also well on her way to becoming a nationally recognized keynote speaker. She is an active member of the National Speakers Association and the American Society for Training and Development.

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