In language, rhetoric

Any good presentation should take the audience on a journey: from point A – where they are when they walk into the room, to point B – where they know what the presenter wants, why they want it and, most importantly, that they (the audience) want it too. This, in itself, can be difficult enough but then come the questions.

Unless you manage to fill your audience with people asking planted questions, you can be pretty sure that the questions will often undo all your hard work. Instead of keeping you at point B, the questions will take you to points C, D, E and the rest of the alphabet, even maybe back to point A.

Before we give up in despair, it’s worth remembering a couple of points. First, most people don’t ask questions to cause us problems. Most people ask questions simply because they want to know more, are unsure of certain points in the presentation, or just need a little more reassurance. This is important, because a lot of good presentations fall apart at the Q&A stage. This is often because the presenter starts to feel they are under attack, and so they become defensive or – even worse – aggressive. They end up arguing with the audience, which almost never works.

The second point is that there are ways to handle questions effectively. One option is to answer the questions and then to retake the floor and repeat the conclusion of your presentation. While this may seem an attractive option, there are a couple of potential problems. First, you may not be able to get enough control to remake your conclusion – the meeting may run out of time, for example. Second, if the questions have made your argument look weak, simply restating your conclusion will convince nobody.

There is, however, another alternative. It is not always easy to do, and it needs skill, preparation, and practice, but if you can do it, it does work. Here’s how it goes.

First, you must answer the question – honestly. You do not, however, have to go into all of the details and answer at great length. Keep the answer part as short as possible – certainly not more than a minute. What you then need to do is find a way to go from answering the question, which may take you to say, point C, and use it to steer the audience back to your point B.

For example, Charlotte Oades, CEO of Coca-Cola GB, was interviewed on the BBC’s Money Programme, where she was asked the following question:

Won’t the new law removing fizzy drinks vending machines from schools. threaten Coke’s access to the next generation of consumers?

Clearly, this is a threat to Coca-Cola, and Charlotte Oades needs to speak about the size of this threat, but she also needs to show that the company is able to respond to this and that she is in charge of events:

“Schools in Great Britain in terms of volume for us represent less than 1% of our total business. We already choose NOT to go into primary schools. And we haven’t been in them for a long time. The only schools we will provide for will be secondary schools and above. And the only reason we are in schools is because schools want us to be there. We will continue to offer a whole range of both nutritious beverages, wellness beverages, any kind of beverage that provides refreshment that the school wants.”

Only the first three lines or so are directly related to answering the question. She then goes on to turn the question to her advantage. She knows that the purpose of the interview – from her perspective – is to give the best possible impression of Coca-Cola GB. Once she has dealt with the question, she uses her answer as a platform to say what she wants about her company.

These points are often known as ‘key messages’, and good speakers are those who can find a way to answer the question and then turn it towards the points they wish to make. In her case, it’s all about the wide range of drinks that Coca-Cola provide to schools and, in particular, that these include wellness and nutritional drinks, and that Coke should be seen as providing the refreshment that schools want. You may disagree with Charlotte Oades about the value of Coke’s products to schools and children, but it’s difficult not to admire her skill in using a potentially tricky question to make a positive point about her company.

Your have to start your answer where the question takes you, but you should aim to finish it by restating your point B.

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