10 tips for handling questions during a demo presentation

Questions are one of the most feared aspects of a live sales demo presentation. But they don’t have to be, especially if you’ve taken the time to plan out in advance how to handle them. We’ve compiled a list of 10 tips and tricks for handling questions during a demo. It’s my hope that you’ll be able to leverage these techniques to drive a richer, more fulfilling demo experience for both you and your audience.

1. Set the ground rules up front

Ask yourself if you are going to be pausing at certain moments for your questions? Are you prepared to handle ad-hoc questions during your presentation? Do you only want questions at the end? Whatever you decide, be sure to let your audience know at the beginning of your presentation.

In general, during a sales demo, you want a healthy interaction with your audience. It shows engagement and interest – even if there are challenging questions. Hopefully, you’ve been able to do your research up front and identify the potential dissenters and allies, and understand where each of them stands in the decision-making hierarchy. Just remember that sometimes the fervent dissenters can end up being your biggest allies once their concerns are addressed.

2. Repeat the question, in your own words

One of my favorite techniques for handling questions during a demo is to repeat the question in my own words. This has three great benefits.

  • I make sure everyone in the audience has heard the question. This is true even if you’ve just got a few people in the room. Minds tend to wander and this is a nice way to pull people back in.
  • I confirm with the person who is asking the question that I’ve fully understood it.
  • I confirm with the person who is asking that I’ve listened to them and processed their question.

Paraphrasing is totally fine here, by the way. In fact, I’m a big fan. Just make sure you keep the main points of the question intact.

3. Work to understand the motivation behind the question

As we’ve written about before, people rarely ask for what they actually need. It is easy to just jump in and answer the question at its face value. But sometimes that simple request is masking a more important need or concern.

For example, you may be asked if your product supports a certain feature. Easy “yes/no” question, right? But what if they are concerned about the feature, and would prefer that your product didn’t have it? I’ve found that, unless I know the questioner and the motivation behind the question, it is best to follow their question with one of my own. “What about that feature is important to you?”

Once I was asked if users are allowed to share documents with 3rd party users. It turned out to be a trap question. Fortunately, I held back on answering “Yes, of course, they can!” Instead, I asked, “What about users sharing documents is important to you?” It turns out that there were major concerns about exposing internal documents externally. Because I dug a little deeper I had a better answer for them. “Although this is an advanced feature of the product, it is disabled by default. Your IT group would need to specifically enable this feature to allow users to share.” While each answer was factually correct, the second one addressed the need behind the question!

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4. "What," not "why"

When working to understand the motivation behind the question (#3), your choice of words can have quite an impact. One of the great lessons I’ve learned over the years is to use “What” and not “Why.”

For example, let’s assume you overheard my wife, coworker, parent, a friend asking me, “Why did you do that?” You probably have a greater than 50% chance of assuming that I did something wrong. If, on the other hand, you heard them asking me, “What drove you to this course of action” it’s more of a wash. In other words, just the fact of asking questions that lead with “why” can have an accusatory tone.

Moving back to the world of demos, it is easy to assume you will eventually be asked if your product has a certain feature. Let’s assume you respond with, “Why is that feature important to you?” You are putting the pressure on the questioner to justify the need for the feature. The spotlight is on them or their team. If, instead, you ask “What about this feature is important to you?” you put the spotlight on the feature itself and the aspect of it that they need for their business process.

I know this is subtle, but it is a very useful technique when handling questions during a demo as well as when talking to your child or spouse!

5. Maintain control of the room

Some questions are too involved to answer with the group. Sometimes they will take you on a tangent that is inappropriate for the purpose of the meeting. Best to take those offline with whoever is interested.

If you have follow-ups from a question, pause to write down a reminder so you can address it later. It’s sometimes nice to put your follow up list in a visible location, such as a whiteboard or flipchart. This is especially true if you are planning on addressing the question at a later point during your demo. Depending on the nature of the demo, a notepad or laptop may is easier. If you’ve got someone else taking notes, your job becomes a little easier here.

A Word of Caution:
I’ve lost the room in the past when chasing tangents down a never-ending path with no purpose (other than having fun at the time). This is back when I thought that addressing every question that came up was the right way to handle questions during a demo! If you’ve got half a day, have space in your agenda and think that it is important; then you might suggest to the questioner that you’ll get to it during a later portion of the meeting or right now (but be warned, this is riskiest). It is better to take a break to collect yourself and think about the best approach to address the question, instead of jumping right in, with the obvious exception to a no-brainer question that is close to your main demo path.

6. Engage at a deeper level

Drilling into the motivation behind the question and engaging in a thoughtful discussion can lead to a deeper understanding of your customer’s needs. This can further deepen the connection amongst everyone in the room. Remind yourself; these questions are actually gifts. The person asking, even if they are asking a challenging question, is engaging with you and giving you an opportunity to address a need or concern.

7. Give the audience a chance to answer (sometimes)

Proceed with caution here. It is an easy way negate tip #5, and lose control of the room. If you’ve got the brainpower in the room, it’s tempting to use it – and perhaps it’s the right call. However, I’ve been in presentations where the presenter lost control as a conversation developed between two of the attendees. It was awkward to watch the presenter struggle to wrench control back.

At the same time, if you know your attendees and have done your research, you may have the opportunity to cultivate the exchange of knowledge.  Stay in control by asking specific people for their input, people who you trust and have a relationship with. If things start to get out of control, let everyone know that you find their input very interesting and would like to discuss it after your presentation.

8. Address the room

Remember that you are presenting to the room. That doesn’t change when an individual asks you a question. If it is a big room, repeat the question and make sure to project. Continue to make eye contact around the room, not just to the individual who asked the question.

9. If you don't know, say so

If you start making stuff up, you’ll probably be setting the wrong expectations about how your product works, or lose respect and trust. As I was growing as a consultant and sales engineer, I was blown away by the willingness and comfort my senior colleagues had in just saying they didn’t know the answer. I also noticed how the respect and trust the customer had in them grew when they answered that way. It was an eye opening experience for me, and one that helped me embrace the “I don’t know” mantra. If I don’t know an answer, I simply say so, and try my best to follow up.

10. Finish strong

After the inevitable Q&A period at the end of your presentation, wrap up by summarizing the key points of your presentation.
Even if you encourage interaction throughout your demo, you’ll want the catch-all Q&A at the end. Be sure, once it ends (either by a time limit or when you run out of questions) to thank folks for their time and then paraphrase the key benefits covered by your demo. This is your chance to remind everyone one last time of the key benefits you’ve covered before they move on to their busy days or to other learning opportunities.

Conclusion

Wikipedia says Moltke the Elder was first to state that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Of course, your prospect is by no means your enemy! So instead, let’s modify the saying to state “no plan survives much beyond the beginning of its execution.” Perhaps a tad bit generic, but you have to admit it’s far more universal in its application. The truth is, when you know how to field and handle questions during your demo, your plan will survive – in fact, you and your relationships will grow as you navigate this testy terrain of audience interaction.

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