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Handling Questions

 

Techniques Public speaking > Speaking Tips > Handling Questions

Preparing for questions | When to take questions | First of all... | Types of question | Interacting with the questioner | Effective answers | See also

 

Questions from the audience are a difficult topic for speakers who, by definition, are predisposed to speak more than listen. Handling questions is a tricky business and can derail your presentation if not handled carefully.

Preparing for questions

Do not wait until your audience asks you a question during your presentation, especially if the presentation is important (which it always is for your reputation at least).

Brainstorm possible questions

Start by brainstorming possible questions that your audience might ask. Walk through your talk, particularly the more challenging parts, and write a list of the questions that may be asked of each point.

Select key questions

This should give you a long list. The next job is to whittle this down to a list of questions that is best worth your time in developing good answers.

First strike out the trivial questions that you can answer easily on the fly. Be careful with this as simple questions can have complex answers. Also, before striking out a question, think about the next question the same person would ask if they did not accept your answer.

Next put an asterisk against the questions that might need a longer answer. Then add a second asterisk against questions where a complete answer would be difficult to give. Then add a third asterisk to questions that would seriously challenge you.

Develop clear answers

Now, starting with the three-star questions, develop good answers. Sometimes the answer might be an admission of ignorance, though with a good follow-up viewpoint. Sometimes you may need to do a bit more research, for example to get solid data to back up your claims.

Check out the notes below for more ideas. 

When to take questions

A difficult question for speakers is when to take questions. Many would prefer not to have any, yet it an effective question time can be the most powerful part of your presentation and give the audience strong reasons to remember you and your ideas.

Depending on the situation, you may or may not have the choice of whether to take questions, for example where organisers decide when questions can and cannot be taken (although it can sometimes be a powerful move to ignore this ruling).

At the end

The traditional place where questions are asked is after the presentation has completed. This is certainly easier for the speaker and perhaps also for most of the audience for whom breaking the flow of learning can be very disrupting.

Another advantage of taking questions at the end is that you can close the talk at the allotted time by not taking any more questions ('Sorry, we've run out of time.'). It is common to allow between five to twenty minutes for questions, depending on the talk duration and situation, and sometimes more (such as when your talk is simply to spur a debate).

A good reason to include final questions is that some people are slow to formulate their questions and actually need the duration of the speech to figure out how to articulate their questions. This of course is more difficult for them towards the end, although they may still get their questions in towards the end of question time.

The big problem with this is that questions occur to people along the way and by the end they may have forgotten. The rest of the audience are even more likely to forget the context, making the questioner's questions largely unintelligible.

On the fly

A potentially more powerful method is to allow people to ask questions on the fly. To do this requires a more assured and confident speaker who can smoothly answer questions and then continue, unruffled, with the talk.

A problem with ad-hoc questions is that they can eat into time in an unpredictable manner. Again, a more comfortable speaker will manage questioners so they do not take too much time and then change their presentation so that it still flows and completes well on time.

Some talks, such as sales presentations, are very likely to have unavoidable mid-flow questioning. This is one reason that sales people become skilful at handling questions -- if they do not, then they will have significant problems.

After each section

A balance between taking questions at the end and on the fly is to stop after each of several sections within the presentation and ask for questions. You can then cover off queries whilst the topic is fresh in everyone's mind.

Afterwards

You can also take questions after your presentation is complete and you are away from the speaking platform. Go mingle with the crowds. Have a drink or dinner with them. Ask them questions and answer the further questions they ask you.

This can be difficult for shyer speakers who like the protective distance the platform gives. Most people, however, find this more comfortable and it can be a practical alternative to handling on-stage questions.

You can also let people contact you electronically, for example by giving them your email or social networking address. It can be a neat method to swap business cards if you also want to gain a circle of contacts.

First of all...

When you are asked a question, there are a couple of rules that many speakers forget but which are absolutely critical.

Hear the question

First, listen intently to the questioner. Hear all of their words. Watch their body language. Hear the intent and emotion. If you do not understand what they say, you will have to ask them to repeat themselves, though as this is embarrassing for you and especially them it is best avoided.

Repeat the question

The next step is as important as it is simple: repeat the question. Unless the questioner is not passed a microphone, many other people will not have heard the question, which will make your answer meaningless to them.

Repeating the question also lets you check that you have heard them correctly. This is often best done paraphrasing the question and perhaps simplifying it (many people use a lot of words to ask a simple question).

It is obvious but bears repeating: when you are checking that the question is correct, directly address the person asking the question.

If the question is asked somewhat later than the context of your speech about which it is targeted, then it can also be helpful to remind the audience something more about what was asked.

For example:

"So you are asking whether elephants could survive climate change, is that right? (watch for nod) And it is about my point earlier that many more species might become extinct, is that right? (watch again for agreement)

Types of question

There are many types of question a speaker might be asked. Here are a few categories and some of the answers you might give.

Banal questions

Some questions seem so stupid and answers so obvious, you might wonder whether the questioner was listening at all or perhaps needs a decimal point in their IQ. This may be highlighted by little murmurs of contempt from other members of the audience.

Whatever they ask, it is not a good idea to look at them as if they were from a different planet. It may be how your teachers treated you sometimes and it may be what you feel like doing, but always treat them with respect and answer the question. Keep the answer short and clear.

Off-topic questions

It is not uncommon to be asked a question about something entirely unrelated to the presentation, especially if you are known for other matters, such as having written a book on a different topic or are a known authority.

Again, it is normal to be respectful and answer the question. Again, a briefer answer is often appreciated by the wider audience.

Interesting questions

A speaker's dream is an interesting question about which you can talk for a long time. The challenge here is to be brief. Your audience has heard your main speech. This is an answer to one question and there are more to answer. Show your enthusiasm, but do not let it run away with you.

Challenging questions

Some questions are not very easy to answer. They may test your knowledge or be difficult to explain briefly. You can tell them because the words for the answer do not easily come to mind. The best approach here is to acknowledge the challenge, for example by saying something like 'This is a tricky question but I will do my best to explain.' The worst thing to do is to bluster or challenge the person in return.

Critical comments

Sometimes you will get comments (or comments dressed as questions) that seem intended simply to criticize or oppose what you have presented. Sometimes it may also seem that it is intended as a personal attack.

When this happens, the first thing to remember is not to rise to the bait. Do not get angry or upset and never criticize the person in return or you will lose the entire audience. You can simply disagree. You can ask them what they mean. Or you can ignore the attack and answer the comment as if it were a legitimate question.

Interacting with the questioner

When you interact with a single questioner you are, by proxy, interacting with the whole audience, who will empathize with questioners who are naturally more like them than the person on the stage.

Respect, always

The first rule of interaction is respect. Always respect the person even if they make a personal attack. This means being polite in your responses. You should also be assertive and not cowed by aggression. Stay calm and clear and the audience will stay with you.

Give them time to think

Some people have immediate questions whilst others take time to formulate their queries. A way of giving them time is to pause and give space even when it seems questions have ended. It can take a little courage to stand there whilst nobody is saying anything but you will find that questions do appear and they are often good ones.

Check the question

As above, repeat the question, paraphrasing it, and also give indication of your assumed context. Then ask if you have understood the question correctly.

Test understanding

When you give an answer, it is a good idea to check that they have understood what you said and that it sufficiently answers their question (most people will say yes anyway). If it does not, have another go. If they still do not get it then do not persist -- suggest they come and talk with you afterwards.

Handling the persistent

If people keep trying to talk with you, for example disagreeing with what you say or asking additional questions, you might want to allow one response but then need to move on. If you have a host then you may look to them before handling it yourself. The simplest method is to thank them for their questions and then, without giving a break in which they can talk ask for the next question.

In this, do try to understand the person's motive: are they being awkward or do they have a real question. Suggesting they come to see you afterwards will sort out the genuine questioner from those with ulterior motives.

If you are in a sales situation or similar context where it is more appropriate to continue to answer questions then of course you should so do, though you can also turn this into a conversation. 

Handling the aggressive

Sometimes you may face questioners who disagree with you sufficiently to be aggressive in their response. Never get drawn into a fight as this is what they may be seeking. Be polite but quietly assertive.

One way of handling such people is simply not to respond. Let them exhaust themselves then move on. If they become physical, move away and try to put a barrier such as a table between you.

Effective answers

When you come to answer questions you have been asked, if you do not have the right words to hand, do pause to think what to say. This also has the benefit of showing you are taking the question seriously.

There are several ways you can answer the question:

Answer just the question

The simplest approach is just to answer the question you have been asked. Keep the answer clear and concise. Do not stray beyond the basic answer.

This method is a minimum basic and is a safe option when you are not sure about your audience.

Expand on the topic

If you are confident about the topic, if you have time and perhaps if the situation is less formal, then you can talk more broadly, reaching into new areas and introducing new topics.

This approach can help enrich your presentation, customising it for you audience and leaving them with a sense of having gained something extra from you.

A brief, impromptu speech

A clever way to answer questions is by giving a 'mini-speech', complete with introduction, body and conclusion. Delivering a response in this way gives a complete package that can make your answer coherent, whole and satisfying.

When you do not know the answer

If you do not know the answer, then do not try to bluster and fake an authoritative answer. One way of handling this is to bounce it back to the audience, asking what they think about the question and seeking their help in developing a good answer. This method cannot be used with all questions of course, but it can be a life-saver when you are stuck.

Another, simpler approach is simply to say that it is a good answer but you cannot do it justice here. You can, if appropriate, promise to research further and come back with an answer at a later date.

Answer with a question

Another way of dealing with tricky questions is to as a question in return. This can be used to help clarify what the questioner is really asking and what they are seeking. It may sometimes be appropriate to ask them what they think the answer is, though this can get you into trouble if not handled well.

See also

Questioning techniques

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