• Scott Stiefvater

Don't fear unexpected questions. Look for them.

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

There's a common way of thinking about presentations that says their success hinges on staying on track, keeping with the presenter's script. The prep work is like laying railroad tracks between two towns, and the presentation is the train as it moves from town A to town B. Just about the worst thing that can happen is some unexpected question from the audience derailing the train. Some will say that if you do your due diligence at audience analysis, you won't get these kind of surprises. I disagree.

It's almost impossible to anticipate how your listeners will respond.

During a presentation, the listeners' minds are in a constant search for two things: meaning and relevance. Meaning is comprehension. When someone derives meaning from an idea they understand it. They use previous knowledge to make sense of it. Relevance is importance. When someone finds relevance it means the idea matters to them or that it connects directly to something that matters to them. For most presentations, it is incredibly difficult to predict what the majority of listeners will find truly meaningful and relevant in the moment. In other words, the terrain is unpredictable and ever-changing so it doesn't make a lot of sense to lay railroad tracks.

Come with ideas to share in a loose, default sequence.

You might think of presentation as a more spontaneous journey through an area of land that you, the presenter, have largely charted. There are landmarks to visit. You have a loose sequence in mind but you aren't bound to that sequence. Nor are you bound to lead your listeners to every single landmark. You instead take cues from your listeners and make decisions regarding where to go based, at least in part, on those cues.

See unexpected questions as meaning and relevance sign-posts.

When you are stuck on rails, an unexpected question catches your off guard, you worry that you won't have the answer and that you will look foolish. Instead of Q&A at the end (a clever way to protect your railroad tracks), invite questions and reactions throughout your presentation. Seek them out. Use them as sign-posts to guide you as you guide the group toward what is truly meaningful and relevant to them.


© 2021 by Scott Stiefvater,

(anti) Presentation Coach


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