3 Ways to Handle Tough Questions – What I Learned From Improv


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3 Ways to Handle Tough Questions – What I Learned From Improv

Each time we open the floor for questions after a presentation, we are stepping into the unknown. What if there are inappropriate questions? Or aggressive points of view? Or questions we do not know the answers to? Even experienced speakers may worry. But answering even the toughest audience questions can be fun, not a trial.  

I’ve done theater improvisation for eight years and can confirm that it helped me a lot in sharpening my public speaking techniques. That’s how it works. Here are 3 tips that I learned from improv:

#1. Use “Yes, and” 

Imagine two actors improvising on stage. One is addressing the other: “Morning doctor, my leg hurts.” And the other answers: “I am not a doctor, I am your father”. What happens next? Actors arguing over who is right while the audience loses interest. Boring!

A second scenario: One actor starts: “Morning, doctor, my leg hurts”. And the other rushes to help: “Poor you, let’s cut it off!” Surprise, some laughter, and… you stick around to see what happens next. And that’s exactly the point: instead of being blocked, the story develops. This is because the second actor accepted the “offer” of his partner and built on it. The famous “yes, and” principle of improvisation. 

So how can you use it? Simple. Whatever the question is, first, go in its direction, then take the discussion further. And by taking it further I mean pivoting it wherever you want it to go. But you should start with “yes”, that shows that you’ve heard and accepted the question. 

Here are some examples of responses:

·      “Good question. And I will tell you more…”

·      “Thank you. You’ve made me think of one example…”

·      “I see your concern. Let’s pause for a moment and consider the following…”

·      “You’re right to raise this. It’s an important topic that goes hand in hand with…”

What if the question is completely out of the blue and has no connection with your speech? Well, you can always use humor: “Interesting question. I’d be happy to discuss it over a beer after the conference.” 

#2. Make the questioner look good

The stage is a place for solidarity, not competition. Improv actors know this. Making fun of other’s missteps, accent, or difficulties can buy you a cheap laugh once or twice, but at the cost of making the audience feel awkward and start to disengage. Most people do not want to participate in the public humiliation of others. 

How does this relate to speakers handling tough audience questions? Well, a question could, for instance, be based on information that is factually wrong, or be presented with strong emotion, or it may interpret incorrectly what’ve you said before. 

The best thing in such circumstances is to show empathy. So instead of becoming defensive or sounding patronizing, focus on making the other person look good. Such a human gesture wins the audience's hearts and keeps them engaged.

Examples of handling such questions could be:

·      “That is indeed interesting/surprising/disturbing information that I am not aware of. So before I answer, can we have a side discussion to see what the facts are?”

·      “I see that you feel strongly about this topic and totally respect that. So if I understood your question correctly, you want to know…” (Reframe to take the emotions out) 

·      “I realize what you mean. My apologies for not being clear about this point. Let me go back and explain myself better.”

#3. Take risks

The best presentation is one that is remembered. Again, let’s imagine an improv scene. A group of friends are driving in a car in the countryside. Suddenly, they hear a scream from a nearby forest. What will they do? 

Option A: Speed up to get home and continue with their normal lives. 

Option B: Hurry to where the scream is coming from to see what’s happening.   

As an audience, which scene would you prefer to watch? I bet not the first one. That is why all improv actors know: if you want to create a memorable performance, you have to go where the danger is. 

So which are the dangers that you can choose to face as a public speaker? It could be a journalist who always asks uncomfortable questions. It could be an unexpected request from the audience such as co-presenting, requesting a live demo, or challenging you to a debate on the topic. 

The best advice I can give you is to go for it. People always prefer surprising presentations over predictable ones. Whatever happens, thank them for making your presentation a remarkable one.  

So if you are up for taking some risk, here are some examples you can use:

“John, I’m sure your question will make me sweat. Bring it on!”

“Ok, let’s do it. Let’s prove to everybody that nothing was scripted.”

“Be careful what you are asking for. As I am saying… yes!”

Each time I take chances onstage, it leads me to unexpected places. It has not always been smooth, but the audience generally appreciates your courage. Needless to say, people also reach out post-presentation to share feedback, connect and engage further. And is it not the ultimate purpose of public speaking – to touch people’s hearts?...

Thank you for reading. There are many more improv techniques applicable to public speaking. Reach out to me if you want to see them put into practice:

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