How to respond to tough questions when pitching for a project

Questions from the audience during a pitch or presentation are almost guaranteed to raise anxiety levels among designers. John Scarrott, trainer and coach for design businesses, outlines a five-step process for tackling tricky questions.

In some ways, questions during a pitch or presentation are a bit like a ride on a rollercoaster. You want to look but at the same time cover your eyes. The five steps that follow will calm your nerves, enable you to prepare well, and enjoy the ride with your eyes open.

  • Work it out before the presentation
  • Practice, as if it’s the real thing
  • Get comfortable with welcoming unexpected questions
  • Perform your answer
  • Ask questions of your own, too

Work it out before the presentation

Work out what you’re going to do when a question is asked that you don’t know the answer to. Anxiety is caused by uncertainty and possibility, that’s why questions make us nervous – they could be about anything. The key to confidence is to create some certainty for yourself. Imagine the questions that might come up, and consider brainstorming with a colleague beforehand.

Practice, as if it’s the real thing

When you rehearse your presentation, ask some colleagues to be the audience and brief them to ask as many awkward questions as possible. The act of rehearsing will enable you to get more comfortable. Make a note of the responses you find tricky and re-work your responses afterwards.

Then practice your responses a couple of times out loud. By the way, you’ll probably hate this – but better to hate it before the presentation and win the pitch than hate it during the presentation and lose it.

Get comfortable with welcoming unexpected questions

Welcome the question and smile. Say something truthful, because your audience will be able to detect when you’re not being honest and so will you. You could say: “I hoped you were going to ask me that because that’s something I’ve been thinking about”; or “thank you”; or simply “Ah!” (as in ‘wonder’, not ‘panic’). Make this what you feel. Even if you’ve been stunned by the question, find a way to say that. For example, if it’s a new question, say: “That’s new for me”. Try to avoid saying “What a good question!” It can become repetitive and when you don’t say it, you may offend your audience.

Perform your answer

Try to create some drama when you answer. For this, make sure there’s a flip chart to hand. During your introduction, say that you might use it. Then, when you get a question that you think merits special attention (challenging ones are the best), walk over to the flip chart. Head up the blank sheet “Good questions” (or something like that). Pause and then repeat the question back to the enquirer to check you heard it correctly, then write up the question that’s been asked. Pause, then ask again: “Have I got that right?” Then try to answer it, if you can. Or you might say: “I have a few thoughts, before I share them, what do you think?” This depends on the nature of the question of course.

Ask questions of your own

Another way to create some certainty around questions is to ask some of your own. Why should your audience be the only ones that do the asking? This is especially good after you’ve made a key point. For this, you need to decide beforehand when you’re going to ask your question. A good time is at the halfway point in your presentation. Here’s how:

Firstly, let your point settle, and pause. Then say: “Can I ask at this point how this is landing with you?”then scan the room. Pause here to give your audience a little space to think. Because they may not be ready for your question, but that’s okay. Then when they answer, you listen and respond, say thank you and make a note of what they say. Perhaps a question will surface that you can add to the flip-chart.


With these techniques, you can start to create some certainty for yourself that will calm your nerves around questions.

A final thought is to consider how many experts are in the room when you enter a meeting or presentation, and what are they experts on? Consider thinking about the room as full of a group of people working together to find an answer, everyone on the same side. This may remove the notion of questions as being something to fear and replace this with something a bit more collaborative – questions as the route to progress.

Creating some certainty for yourself around questions allows you to open your eyes and enjoy the presentation, all the ups and downs, and twists and turns – and that increases your chance of a positive result.

John Scarrott is a trainer and coach working with design professionals on their approach to influential communication. Find him on Twitter @JohnDScarrott or check out his website where you can find other useful articles on this subject.

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