Presentation Aikido and other tricks for Q & A


She presented her material for fifteen minutes. Her slides were clear and she felt she covered her topic pretty well. But when she asked “Are there any questions?” she started to feel her credibility ebb away. The executives challenged her research; they questioned her on next steps; and they seemed intent on poking holes in all of her work. Her careful preparation did her little good in this open format…she stumbled over her words and got defensive, which drew out even more questions. She felt like a swimmer surrounded by sharks.

Has this ever happened to you? Giving a presentation is difficult enough—the preparation and delivery alone are a challenge—but the Q&A you can’t always prepare for. Here are some tips to keep you cool and in command of the room:

The Challenging or Hostile Question:

An audience member might pounces on you with a direct challenge (or a thinly veiled attack). If you take the bait and get defensive, you can end up looking like lunch for that shark. Instead, I’d recommend you use a technique I call Presentation Aikido. Aikido is a Japanese martial art that practitioners use to defend themselves, while also protecting their attacker from injury. It’s performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack, rather than opposing it directly. The practitioner “leads” the attacker’s momentum, using entering and turning movements, and it requires very little force. They wear out their attacker but never strike a blow.

So, what is Presentation Aikido? For example, if someone attacks during your presentation, and sneers, “What makes you think this is really going to work?” you lean in and “blend with the motion of the attacker,” rather than arguing with him. It could be done by using clarifying questions and paraphrasing and empathizing. Instead of opposing him, you stand with him and try to look at the issue with him. It usually drains all the hostility out of the person and positions you as a collaborator, who is confident and in control.

The first step is to paraphrase the question using neutral words. This recalibrates the conversation and makes it less combative. Next, you probe to find out what’s behind their attack, so you can answer in a measured way. As they reveal their reasons, you paraphrase and subtly redirect your questions toward a positive solution.

It could sound like this (in response to the above attack): “It sounds like you don’t think this is a good idea. (Neutral reframing) Help me understand your concerns (probe to find out what’s behind the attack)…” “So, you’re saying the Sales Reps won’t be able to sell the new features to our existing customers (neutral paraphrase)…” “What do you think would make this more saleable? (Redirect toward a positive solution)” “Who, other than our existing customers, might see these new features as value added? (redirect toward a positive solution)” By blending with their concerns, and drawing out more answers to their own concerns, the attacker usually ends up feeling listened to, engaged, and part of the solution (without “injury” to his credibility or ego—or yours).

The Vague Question:

Sometimes a question is lobbed without a lot of forethought. If you try to answer a vague question without really understanding what the person is really trying to ask, you can end up rambling all over the place, guessing at what he or she wants and over explaining. It’s a credibility killer.

A good practice is to always paraphrase questions, especially in this instance. You can frame the question in a way that makes sense to you (and that you are able to answer). You can then check with the person, “Is that what you are asking?” before launching into the answer. You will let him/her off the hook for asking a rather lame question, and you can answer the question you chose to paraphrase. (If you’re good at this technique you can run for office!)

However, if you really don’t know what they want, you need to be more direct. The trick here is to get clarification, without embarrassing the person, or sounding rude. For instance, if you said, “You’re question is too vague,” or, “I don’t know what you are asking me,” it sounds like a put-down. But if you frame your question, as if you are the one who needs help, and you are the one who wants to make sure you give them what they want, you will sound audience-centered. (Not to mention buying time to formulate your answer.) For example, “I want to make sure I’m answering your question properly. Could you give me a little more detail about what you want to know?”

The Emotionally Loaded Comments and Questions:

Empathy goes a long way in diffusing a loaded question. For example, let’s take the case of a business owner who is talking with a potential buyer of his company. He is worried about his loyal employees, family members in the business and his legacy. He might say, “I spent my life building this business and I’m not used to someone coming in and telling me what to do.” There’s an old adage: People don’t care about what you know, until they know how much you care. Just retorting with a factual, financial response will not win the deal. Empathy will go a long way toward building trust and paving the way for honest communication and partnership.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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