Question and Answer periods should never be taken lightly. If you’re going to have a Q&A in conjunction with your presentation you will want to ensure that it turns out to be beneficial and not detrimental to your performance. I’ve seen many fine performances completely undone by a disastrous Q&A. and always because it was obvious the speaker had given no thought whatsoever to its importance and how a Q&A should be conducted.
There are two types of question and answer periods that you might encounter as a speaker: the audience question and answer period and the press conference. Because the general audience tends to defer too much to them, if there are media people in attendance you should arrange to deal with them separately, after the audience question and answer period, in what’s still called a press conference, even though these days broadcast journalists often outnumber the print journalists.
This article deals with the general audience question and answer period; dealing with the media will be covered in a separate Journal entry.
You should never allow questions during or after a formal dinner speech, it’s far better to offer to stay around after the formal part of the event to answer individual questions. In other speaking situations whether you’re going to have a formal question and answer period after you’ve finished speaking, whether you’re going to allow questions during your presentation, or whether you’re not going to entertain questions at all, are considerations for you and the organizers to work out in the context of the particular circumstances.
The format chosen for taking questions is not as important as making sure that the decision is made before you start your presentation, that the audience is clearly informed at the outset what the rules for questions are going to be, and that you and the organizers stick to the rules.
It’s usually best not to allow questions during a presentation that is less than an hour long, but rather to hold the question and answer period at the end. On the other hand, during long presentations you shouldn’t force the audience to have to sit on their questions for more than an hour.
Allowing questions from the floor during short presentations interrupts your pacing and flow, and if the audience has a lot of questions you will either have to cut them off or run late. You never want to run overtime and cutting off questioners during a presentation is often seen as being rude, whereas ending a post-presentation question and answer period when the allotted time is up is usually accepted in good grace by the audience, particularly if you offer to stay around and answer individual questions after the event.
For presentations over an hour you should break at a convenient place for questions rather than leave them until you’re finished speaking. But, as in the case of a question and answer period at the end of your speech, have a defined time limit and do not exceed it lest you put yourself in a position of having to cut out material or run late, neither of which is desirable.
It is important that the audience be informed what the time limit for the question and answer period is and what the rules are, such as whether they have to identify themselves and whether they have to go to strategically placed microphones to voice their queries. For large audiences, say 100 to 200 people, microphones are a great advantage. For very large audiences, say more than 200 people, microphones are absolutely essential, and you might also want to allow written questions.
If written questions are to be used, it is important that paper and pencils are provided to everyone and that there are enough people available to pick up the questions and bring them to the podium in a timely fashion. A major advantage to the audience of written questions is that they can write out their questions while they’re fresh in their minds and have them picked up while you’re still speaking. A major advantage to you is that you can pick and choose the order in which you deal with the questions. You can even exclude particular questions if you wish.
It’s better to have the master of ceremonies inform the audience what the question and answer format and rules are going to be than for you to have to do it during your opening. But if no such announcement has been made, you should do it.
Be extremely alert during the question and answer period. It’s a tremendous opportunity to redeem yourself in areas where your talk may not have gone as well as you wanted, and to enhance your performance in areas where it did.
You have to listen attentively to what the question ultimately is, rather than anticipating what it’s going to be and thinking about how you’re going to answer it. It’s a dangerous trap to start formulating your answer about half way through the question. You may completely miss a change of direction at the end of the question with the result that your answer may sound evasive, deceitful, or just plain stupid.
Many experienced speakers will save some new material for the question and answer period, and if the appropriate question doesn’t get asked they’ll generate it themselves in the form of a rhetorical question or prefaced by a comment such as, “Some of you may have been wondering….”
It’s always a good idea to ensure that there will be a couple of good questions to start the ball rolling. The best way to accomplish this is to plant a couple of questions in the audience. If you haven’t arranged this beforehand, start off by asking, “Who has the first question?” If no one responds you can usually kick-start it by saying, “A question I’m often asked is…”
If you get a question that’s based on an incorrect premise, set the record straight before you respond. For example, after I’d given a talk during which I speculated on what income tax changes the government might be introducing, a member of the audience began his question, “You obviously have some inside connections in government….” Before answering the actual question it was important that I made it clear that I did not have any inside information and that my answer was based strictly on my own expectations and not based on actual knowledge, inside or otherwise.
A short and incisive question always deserves a short and incisive answer; so does a long, drawn-out question. Don’t get into long, convoluted answers. You’ve already given your speech; don’t start giving another one at this point. A good technique in handling a long-winded question is to concisely restate the question in your own words before answering. This makes sure that everyone knows what you’re talking about and allows you to give an appropriate answer. You should also repeat any question that everyone in the audience wasn’t able to hear.
Don’t answer too quickly. If you need a little time to think about your answer, take it. A short pause before answering gives you time to think through your answer before giving it. This will also tend to shorten your answer, get rid of word whiskers and trite phrases, and eliminate redundancies. The audience will see you as a thoughtful person who’s not shooting from the hip, or the lip, as the case might be. If you pause slightly before all your answers, you’ll not seem to be panicking when the really tough question that requires a little extra thought comes along. However, once you begin your answer get right to the point. Giving illustrations and examples to back up your answers is always appreciated by the audience during a question and answer period, and the use of illustrations and examples tends to keep your answers crisp and to the point.
In informal situations, such as a presentation to your staff or fellow club members, you can be more conversational and indulge in more give-and-take with the audience than would be acceptable in a larger, more formal setting.
Deal with belligerent questioners the same way you would deal with a heckler during your main presentation. Separate how you feel about the questioner from how you feel about the subject being discussed. Watch your tone of voice, stay cool, stay sincere, stay likeable, and never embarrass a questioner in front of the audience, regardless of how strong the temptation or how justified it may seem to do so. But don’t turn into a wimp. When someone disagrees with your point of view, stay true to yourself. Give your answer as an opinion if you wish, but don’t back off further than that. To defuse loaded questions don’t hesitate to question the questioner. Asking belligerent questioners why they feel the way they do, or on what information their opinion is based, is often all that’s needed to get things back on track and leading to a question that you can handle without rancour.
When “questioners” point out a mistake you’ve made, or simply express agreement with you, just thank the person and move on.
Never try to fake it. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. If at all possible refer the questioner to a source where the answer may be found. If practical, you can offer to meet the questioner after your session is over and obtain a telephone number, fax number or email address to which you can forward the answer once you’ve had time to research it.
End the question and answer period when the audience has obviously run out of interesting questions or at the scheduled ending time, whichever occurs first. Never run overtime; but if there are clearly more people with questions, if at all possible offer to stay around for awhile to deal with them.