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Presentation Skills: How to Handle an Ambush

By Peter Paskale (1407 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on September 8, 2014

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“Stand and deliver!”


For years it was the cry of the English Highwayman - a dashing masked figure atop a jet-black horse, hero to the masses while profoundest enemy of the rich upon whom he prayed. A sort of Anglo-Saxon Zorro, just without the chubby little sidekick.


Such was the myth. The reality however was very different. This was no popular hero launching his ambush from the roadside shrubbery. This was a thug plain and simple. A robber who was there for just one thing - and as in the old cliché, it was “your money or your life.”


Highwaymen still exist today, only now they practice their skills up and down America wherever presenters, and occasionally politicians, stand to present. Presentation Highwaymen are the louts who for their own reasons, decide that they are going to hijack your presentation with an unanswerable question. 


We dread encountering these individuals in presentations in much the same way that Victorian coach-riders dreaded the fatal highwayman. Here’s where the similarity ends, but whilst the damage from a badly handled question-ambush might not prove physically fatal, it could be deadly for our reputations. 


Here are nine tips to successfully evade the presentation highwaymen and women of America’s boardrooms:


1) Keep Calm and Carry-on

It’s become something of a mantra over the past year - that profusion of desk-signs that play on the British World War II theme of “Keep Calm and Carry-On”. When asked a hostile or ambushing question in a presentation however, it’s excellent advice. Keep Calm! Various wonderful things are about to happen for you.


2) Check Your Body-Language

I actually set people up in the training-room. People going through presenter training always find themselves on the receiving end of hostile questions, and the reason is so that we can work on their body-language under-fire. When we are threatened, one of two poses asserts itself. Either hands-on-hips, or arms-folded-across-chest is the instant result if we feel threatened mid-presentation. 


This unfortunate trait tells both the questioner and the rest of the audience that you’re feeling uncomfortable. Don’t do it! Keep that body-posture open.


3) Know the Audience Are on Your Side

An interesting thing happens when you remain calm-under-fire. Briefly scan the audience and you’ll often catch people glancing at each other or rolling their eyes heavenward. Rest assured that they’re not doing it about you - they’re doing it about your interrogator. This person “has form” and the audience are thinking “oh brother..... here we go again.... here’s Fred and his ‘I’m so clever questions’”.


Handle the situation well and you’ll often find that you won’t have to handle the hostile questioner - your audience will do it for you.


4) Be Respectful

It’s tempting when asked an aggressive or unfair question to become sarcastic or to use irony. Try not to - that lowers you to the same level as the questioner. As I mentioned above - you want to keep the audience on your side!


Instead be as respectful as you possibly can without becoming slimy. Too much respect and it will come across as sarcasm. Respond in the tone that you might use when answering a question from a friend’s father, and you’ll be at about the right pitch.


5) Park the Question, and the Questioner

Here’s where you need either a flip-chart or a large piece of white paper. 


Your goal is to neutralize the question without having to answer it, and there’s a straight-forward way to do it:


1) Pause for a beat. Look thoughtful, as if considering your answer.
2) Look directly at the person and say words to the effect of “Wow - that’s a great question and I’d like to consider it a little before I answer.... BUT... to absolutely make sure we don’t lose sight of it, I’m going to write it down here on the board.”
3) Write the question up on the board in big letters and ensure that everybody can see it. If you have no flip-chart available, write it in large letters on a piece of paper and place it in the center of the table.


All of these steps are pure theatricals, and they’re aimed at making your hijacker sit down, keep quiet, and await their answer. You have gone out of your way, in other words, to make them appear completely unreasonable in the eyes of the audience if they insist on an answer here and now.


6) Re-Frame the Debate

You now have the luxury of time, admittedly whilst also carrying-on the presentation, to think of how you are going to handle the question by re-framing the debate. 


Here are three ideas from classical rhetoric:


7) Apophasis

Apophasis is a technique where you frame a discussion not by stating what the topic is about, but by stating what it isn’t about. For example:


“This meeting isn’t about locking-down roadmaps or setting deadlines or defining penalties. This meeting is about finding the best way to work together as a team.”


8) Ratiocinatio

This is a rhetorical question that is made in three parts. First you make a statement, then you question your own statement (before anybody else can!), and finally you answer your own question:


“The most crucial task before us is to understand the best way to work as a team. Why do I say this? It’s because without being able to pull together, our chance of achieving this ambitious goal is just about zero.”


9) Distinctio

Maybe you can re-phrase a term that lies at the heart of your interrogators question. The technique of distinctio means to lay-out a full description of what you mean by something:


“And by teamwork, I mean understanding how we communicate, how we respect each other, and how we hold each other accountable for the achievement of goals.”


People in presentations who set-out to ambush you are trying to pull the agenda across to their own terms. Their first goal is not to give you thinking time, so your first goal is to keep calm and carry-on. Be respectful, be polite, and win time to think.


Having done that, re-frame the debate. It’s now you who have ambushed the ambusher. 



{#/pub/images/PeterWatts.jpg}Written by Peter Paskale, writer, coach, and trainer guiding presenters to be at their best when on the stage. Following a 15 year career within the technology sector that included 11 years working for Dell, Peter became a consultant specializing in training and coaching business presenters. Today he works with teams around America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to help multinational organizations to bring their message to their customers through the spoken word.Peter is based in the UK. In addition to training under his own Speak2All brand and as an Associate Trainer, he also writes a weekly blog of ideas for presenters, and can be followed daily on Twitter.



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