Paddy opened the conversation with, “I’m giving a talk at Rotary next week and they want a question period.”
“So?” I prodded.
“Well,” he complained, “I’m afraid I might not handle it well, and I don’t want to leave a bad impression.”
“The first thing you have to do, Paddy,” I told him, “is to change your attitude about question periods. They provide an opportunity to redeem yourself in areas where your talk didn’t go as well as you wanted, and they also provide a chance to enhance your talk by giving the audience additional information.”
“I can introduce new material in a question period?” Paddy asked.
“Of course,” I assured him.
“But, what if there’s something I’d like to introduce, but no one raises it?” was his next question.
“Easy,” I told him, “If the appropriate question doesn’t get asked, generate it yourself by making a comment such as, ‘a question I’m often asked is….’ ”
“Maybe I should allow questions during my talk?” Paddy mused.
“How long is your presentation?” I asked.
“Twenty-five to thirty minutes,” he answered
“Then you definitely should not allow questions during it,” I warned him.
“Why?” Paddy asked.
“Allowing questions during a short presentation interrupts your pacing and flow; and if the audience has a lot of questions you’ll have to either cut them off or run late. You never want to run late, and cutting off questioners during a presentation is often considered rude. But ending a post-presentation Q&A when the allotted time is up is quite acceptable, particularly if you offer to stay around to answer questions one-on-one after the event.”
“Is it ever okay to have questions during a presentation?” Paddy asked.
“Yes,” I assured him. “For presentations longer than an hour you should break about half way to take questions as well as at the end. But, just as at the end, there should be a definite time limit which you should never exceed. The format for taking questions isn’t as important as ensuring that the audience is clearly informed at the outset what it is, and that you and the organizers stick to it. Your introducer should inform the audience what the rules are going to be; but if he or she doesn’t, then you must.”
“I’ve been at presentations where written questions were submitted,” Paddy said, “what’s your view on this?”
“Written questions are appropriate for very long presentations, and particularly for panel discussions,” I replied. “If written questions are used, it’s important that paper and pencils be 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. The advantage to the audience of written questions is that they can write them out while they’re fresh in their minds. The advantage for speakers is that they can choose the order in which to deal with the questions, or to even ignore particular questions if desired.”
“Well, I’m not having them,” Paddy said, “so what’s your next gem?”
“Stay alert,” I told him. “Listen carefully to the entire question rather than starting to think about your answer. Otherwise, you may completely miss a change of direction at the end of the question and your answer may sound evasive, deceitful, or just plain stupid.”
“What else?” he asked.
“You should ensure that there’ll be a couple of good questions to start the ball rolling,” I answered. “I like to plant a couple of questions in the audience; but if you don’t do that, then start off by asking, ‘Who has the first question?’ If no one responds you can usually kick-start it by, as I mentioned earlier, saying, ‘a question I’m often asked is…’ ”
“Is there more?” Paddy asked, clearly hoping that there wasn’t.
“Lots,” I disappointed him. “A short, incisive question always deserves a short, incisive answer; and 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 long-winded questions is to concisely restate the question in your own words. This ensures that everyone knows what you’re talking about and allows you to give an appropriate answer. Also, before answering, repeat any question that everyone in the audience wasn’t able to hear.”
“Next,” an exasperated Paddy moaned.
“Don’t answer too quickly,” I said. “If you need a little time to think about your answer, take it. Short pauses will be seen as thoughtful. However, once you begin your answer, get right to the point. Backing up your answers with illustrations and examples is always appreciated by the audience and will help keep your answers crisp and to the point.”
“I suppose there’s still more,” Paddy said.
“Yep,” I assured him, “If you get a question that’s based on an incorrect premise, set the record straight before you respond”
“Like what?” he asked.
“One time after a talk during which I speculated on what income tax changes might be in an upcoming budget, one of the audience began his question, ‘You obviously have some inside information….’ Before answering the question I made it clear that my comments were based strictly on my own expectations and not based on actual knowledge, inside or otherwise.”
“What if I get a question I don’t know the answer to?” Paddy inquired.
“Never try to fake it,” I cautioned him, “If you don’t know the answer, say so. If practical, you can offer to meet the questioner after your talk to obtain a telephone number or email address to which you can forward the answer once you’ve had time to research it.”
“When should I shut it down?” was Paddy’s next question.
“End the Q&A 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, offer to stay around to deal with them one-on-one.”
“What if I run into a belligerent questioner?”
“Deal with belligerent questioners the same way you would deal with a heckler,” I told him.
“Separate how you feel about the questioner from how you feel about the topic. Watch your tone of voice, stay cool, stay sincere, and stay likeable. Don’t embarrass the questioner regardless of how justified it may be. But don’t be 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 defuse the situation”
“I really have to bugger off,” Paddy said, “but one more point. What if a member of the audience points out that I made a mistake?”
“If you’re wrong,” I told him, “do what Dale Carnegie advises: admit it quickly and emphatically. Also, thank him or her for setting you straight. No excuses.”
“Thanks, I think,” Paddy mumbled as he, as promised, buggered off.