The Art of Speaking  

Handling difficult audience questions?

Responding on the fly

YouTube /Wade Paterson

One of the most difficult aspects of public speaking is handling questions that may come from your audience after you’ve delivered your presentation.

For starters, you don’t have any way of knowing what your audience might ask; therefore, you need to think quickly on your feet.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Shawn Kanungo at a work conference. Shawn has built a reputation as one of the innovative keynote speakers in Canada, but I recently had a conversation with him and even he admitted that answering audience questions is the most challenging part of what he does.

Shawn explained what has been most beneficial for him to overcome this challenge is to embrace the power of pausing. When Shawn is asked a question, he doesn’t respond right away. He takes a moment of silence to think about what specifically is being asked and collect his thoughts before delivering a response.

Shawn’s tactic isn’t an easy one to implement because many new speakers feel awkward if there is silence of any kind while they’re on stage. Therefore, they rush to respond as soon as a question is asked. It’s important to remember that tactical silence won’t seem odd to those in the crowd; in fact, it can be a sign of confidence and thoughtfulness.

A second thing you can do is repeat the question. This does a few important things. First, it clarifies with the audience member that you are understanding exactly what they are asking. Second, it informs the rest of the crowd what the question is (especially if the person asking the question wasn’t very loud or didn’t have a mic). Third, it buys yourself a few extra seconds to think of a response.

In the first paragraph, I suggested there is no way of knowing exactly what your audience is going to ask. While this is technically true, it doesn’t mean you can’t still prepare and develop an idea of the types of questions that could potentially come your way.

Try delivering your speech to a friend or family member and task them with asking you three-to-five questions after they’ve heard your speech. There is a reasonable chance they will ask you a question that your future audience will also ask. And if nothing else, it’s a good process to practice answering questions you’re not prepared for and get comfortable with thinking on the fly.

Inevitably, there will be situations where you get a question you don’t know the answer to. In these instances, my best advice is to be transparent with the audience. Those in attendance will respect you if you’re up front and explain you don’t know the answer, especially if you promise to follow-up once you’ve looked into it.

Sometimes you can give partial answers as well. For example, if I was delivering a speech about new social media platforms and a member of the audience asked how many monthly active users are on BeReal, I could respond with the following (if I don’t know the exact answer) “That’s a great question. I’m not 100 per cent sure what that specific number is, however, I know BeReal is one of the fastest-growing social media platforms of all-time, so regardless of what that exact statistic is, I think it’s a worthwhile use of your time to start experimenting with this app.”

A final bonus tip of how to handle difficult questions, is to ensure your timing is right. I’ve been in situations where I was supposed to speak for an hour, and my presentation ended up only lasting 40 minutes, which put me in a situation where I was faced with audience questions for 20 minutes. It’s important to dial in your timing so you have a more reasonable amount of time to answer questions (such as five or 10 minutes).

I hope these tips help you tackle difficult audience questions you may face in the future.

If you’re interested in learning more about Impactful Communication, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

How to keep your audience engaged

Hanging on every word

YouTube /Wade Paterson

People’s attention spans seem to keep getting shorter and shorter.

In fact, you are probably already debating whether you’re going to continue reading this column, or click away to one of the thousands of other stories vying for your attention on this website.

When it comes to public speaking, an in-person audience member isn’t likely to get up and walk out in the middle of your speech; however, you’re still competing with his/her phone, as well as side conversations in the room.

This month, I break down four strategies, which will help you get – and keep - your audience’s attention.

Hook them with the intro

My favourite style of speech is the type that comes around full circle. These speeches usually incorporate a powerful opening statement or a line that captures the audience’s attention, but also acts as a bit of a cliff hanger, leaving your audience wanting more. The body of the speech then builds the structure behind your intended message, while the conclusion references the opening and essentially ties everything together.

For example, if I wanted to give a speech about the power of asking questions in conversations, my introduction could be something like this:

"Do you want to be more liked? Do you want to people to enjoy every conversation they have with you? Do you also want to become a better listener?

"In this speech, I’m going to show you how to do all of those things. In fact, without you knowing, I already did…"

This intro is creative and is likely to tap into the curiosity of your audience. From there, the body of the speech could dive into the research behind why people enjoy conversations in which they are asked questions. The conclusion could tie everything together, perhaps by ending with a question to drive home the point.

Use vocal variety

There’s nothing worse than listening to a speaker deliver a speech with a monotone voice. It’s difficult to stay engaged as an audience member when every sentence sounds the same and the tempo never changes.

Vocal variety is one of the most underrated tools you have access to as a public speaker. By suddenly clapping your hands or raising your voice in the middle of the speech, you will re-capture your audience’s attention. On the flip side, this can also be accomplished by lowering your voice and slowing down the pace of your speech, especially at an intense or emotional part of the story.

Intentionally incorporating vocal variety throughout an entire speech is one of the best ways to keep your audience engaged from start to finish.

Maintain eye contact

It's not an easy task to look the audience in the eyes when you’re in stage.

Throughout my years in the Toastmasters program, I’ve noticed many new speakers either look at the ceiling or the floor before they’ve mastered the skill of eye contact. Those who look at the ceiling usually do so when they’re thinking of what to say next. Those who look at the floor are often struggling with confidence.

It's easier for audience members to get distracted when a speaker isn’t maintaining eye contact because there’s less of a connection. If you can purposefully incorporate eye contact, which scans the entire room, people will be less likely to look at their phones, because there’s a heightened level of accountability knowing that you will be looking directly at them before long.

If you’re speaking to an audience virtually (such as a Zoom call), you want to periodically look directly at the camera to maintain the virtual version of eye contact.

Incorporate a participation element

My fourth suggestion for keeping your audience engaged is to get your audience involved in your speech.

You can do this by asking a question and getting the audience to raise their hands if they agree, or you can ask them to close their eyes and visualize something happening.

Many people learn more effectively when they are actively involved, so audience participation is another powerful way to keep your audience engaged in your speech.

I hope these tips help you to capture (and maintain) your audience’s attention during your next speech.

If you’re interested in learning more about Impactful Communication, subscribe to my YouTube channel here.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Self-deprecation and humour are powerful talking tools

Make them laugh

YouTube /Wade Paterson

What’s your most embarrassing story?

While many people cringe at the thought of reliving an embarrassing moment, what I’ve come to realize is that embarrassing stories often get the most laughs from the audience.

I learned this about seven years ago while embedding my most embarrassing story into a presentation I delivered at a work conference. I figured the story would be a nice change of pace and hopefully the audience would find it funny. But I was blown away by how much laughter the story drew from the crowd.

Why was the audience laughing so hard? Because self-deprecating humour is powerful.

When you poke fun of yourself, you’re voluntarily stepping into a vulnerable position, which often causes the audience to reward you with laugher. They sympathize with your story because they know they easily could find themselves in a similar predicament.

This realization has been reinforced during my time as a Toastmasters member. In Toastmasters meetings, a portion of the agenda is set aside for the Humorist role. The purpose of the Humorist is to make the audience laugh. The vast majority of the time, there is more audience laughter when the Humorist tells a personal story rather than trying to tell jokes they found online. This is especially true if the personal story includes self-deprecating humour.

If your most embarrassing story isn’t appropriate for a general audience, think about stories you’ve told friends in the past where you poked fun of yourself. If any of those stories were well received by your group of friends, it’s likely those stories will also work well in front of a larger audience, or built into part of your speech.

One tip that compliments self-deprecating humour is to try to get your audience to laugh early. If you can make the audience laugh within the first 30 seconds of your speech, the laughter will likely increase as the speech goes on. Crowds can be quick to judge whether a speech is going to be funny or not, and if you can tickle the audience’s funny bone quickly, they will relax knowing that you’ve built a speech worth listening to.

A final tip is to leverage strategic pauses throughout your speech. It is a common mistake for speakers to cut off their audience’s laughter. If the crowd is laughing, let them.

Pause and allow the laughter to happen before jumping to your next part of the speech. Sometimes subtle facial expressions (such as raising your eyebrows) can help stir up the laughter as well.

So the next time you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, rest assured knowing that you may just be collecting hilarious and powerful content for your next speech.

If you’re interested in learning more about Impactful Communication, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Real life skills you gain from Toastmasters?

Mastering public speaking

YouTube /Wade Paterson

Within a typical Toastmasters meeting, there are a number of different roles that club members can sign up for.

A few examples are: Toastmaster, Humourist, Grammarian, Ah Counter, Timer, General Evaluator, Table Topics Master, etc. Those who sign up for these roles not only help ensure the Toastmasters meeting is a success, but they also gain experience communicating in scenarios that directly relate to real life.

In this month’s column and accompanying video, I break down eight different Toastmasters roles and explain how club members benefit from signing up for these roles.

The Grammarian

The Grammarian role has a couple of purposes. The first is to come up with a word-of-the-day, to help expand each club member’s lexicon. The second part of the Grammarian position is to listen throughout the meeting for good uses of language or vocabulary, and find opportunities when speakers could have used more impactful words.

Vocabulary is an important aspect of communication. Whether you’re speaking in front of an audience or having a one-on-one conversation, you gain instant credibility when you’re able to use thought-provoking words that capture the imagination of your audience.

The Timer

The role of the Timer is to — you guessed it — track the timing of each speaker throughout the meeting. At the end of the meeting, the Timer delivers a report to club members, letting them know if they stayed within their allotted time when speaking.

Staying on time while giving a speech is incredibly important. Beyond the importance of keeping your audience engaged, if your speech is part of a larger event, ending too quickly or speaking for too long can impact the agenda and throw everything out of whack. One thing to note is that many people speak quicker when in front of an audience than they do when practicing on their own.

The Ah Counter

“Ahh, umm, err, uhh.” These are a few of the common crutch or filler words speakers use to fill in the silence when speaking in front of a group of people. The role of the Ah Counter at a Toastmasters meeting is to catch these usages and inform club members so they can eliminate filler words from their speeches in the future.

Too many filler words can be incredibly distracting and take away from your message in real life conversations. Eliminating these crutch words makes you sound more polished, and you will earn the attention and respect of those who you are communicating with.

Table Topics Master

Impromptu speaking is one of the hardest things to do as a public speaker. The purpose of a Table Topics Master is to ask club members random questions, to which they are asked to deliver an answer by speaking for one to two minutes.

Whether you’re being asked a question by an audience member following a speech, or being asked a question at a cocktail party, thinking on your feet is an important skill to have. Table Topics helps you sharpen your ability to give a thoughtful answer quickly, and it gives the Table Topics Master the opportunity to come up with creative questions.


Every speaking opportunity within a Toastmasters meeting is evaluated. Speech and role evaluators are tasked with listening carefully, taking notes, then providing meaningful feedback to speakers so they can improve in the future.

Most people think the only purpose of Toastmasters is to make you a better speaker; however, a side benefit to participating in Toastmasters is that you become a better listener as well.

The Humourist

The Humourist’s purpose is simple: make the audience laugh.
Humour is one of the most effective skills a speaker can have because it does two things. First: It relaxes the audience. When a new speaker takes the stage, the audience is typically wondering whether or not this person is going to be enjoyable to listen to. If the speaker can make them laugh quickly, the audience relaxes knowing it’s going to be an enjoyable speech. Second: It relaxes you, the speaker. When the audience laughs, it builds your confidence because you know those in attendance are enjoying themselves.

The Toast

The Toast is typically one of the first parts of a Toastmasters meeting agenda. The Toast often reflects the theme of the week, and sets the tone for the rest of the meeting.
Being able to deliver a toast at a social or professional event is a powerful skill to have. Not many people are willing to stand up and say a few words about the occasion; however, those who do often create a moment that will be memorable for attendees.

The Toastmaster

The Toastmaster role is, in my opinion, the most difficult position to sign up for at a Toastmasters meeting. The Toastmaster is the quarterback of the meeting. Doing the role successfully requires preparation and the ability to transition smoothly between speakers, while keeping the entire meeting on time.

The real life benefit of signing up for the Toastmaster role is that it is great practice for being an MC. Whether it’s being a wedding MC or hosting a work event, the ability to keep an agenda structured and ensure the day flows smoothly is a difficult, but important, skill to acquire.

If you’re based in Kelowna and looking to join a Toastmasters club, you can find more information here.

If you’re interested in learning more about Impactful Communication, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Wade Paterson is an award-winning Toastmaster who is passionate about Impactful Communication.

His columns and accompanying YouTube videos are focused on helping others become more confident public speakers and communicators.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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