Welcome challenges from the crowd

You’re more apt to engage audiences if you invite them to speak up at any time. You want them to raise their hands and interrupt you if they have a burning question.

Yet that comes with a risk: A listener can disrupt your presentation with an aggressive or irrelevant question. How should you respond if a questioner throws you for a loop?

Resist the initial instinct to panic. Inexperienced speakers often deal with unexpected questions, especially hostile ones, with a deer-in-the-headlights stare. Instead, embrace the moment. Treat such interruptions as a gift.

A challenging question can perk up an audience. Everyone wants to know how you’re going to handle it, so even those people who were half-listening will suddenly pay close attention.

Use the audience’s heightened engagement to your advantage. Assure the group that you’re eager to respond by affirming the questioner. Say, “Thank you for raising that point” or “I appreciate where you’re coming from.”

Instantly, you’ll win over the room. By turning a potentially adversarial situation into a genial exchange of ideas, you reinforce your role as a confident, wise leader.

If someone says, “You just don’t understand our business,” avoid reacting defensively. It’s better to say, “Tell me more” and launch a calm, civil discussion. Eventually, you can clarify your point and show how it applies in this case.

— Adapted from “During Presentations, Embrace the Pushback,” Joey Asher, www.speechworks.net.