Archive for the ‘Handling Questions’ Category

As a rule I don’t suggest that speakers emulate politicians.  But, there is one thing politicians do when they speak that is worth noting.

If they don’t agree with someone in their audience, they will look for some way to agree before disagreeing.

Let’s say, for example, an audience member declares that not enough is being done to protect a certain piece of the environment.  The politician will begin by agreeing that it is an important environmental concern and that the audience member is right for being concerned. Then, following these positive comments, the politician will go on to assert that the issue is being responsibly addressed and enough is being done (i.e., the audience member is wrong).

This saying “yes” before saying “no” softens the impact of the disagreement.  It’s a way of making the “no” easier to receive.

Consider this technique the next time you face a challenge from your audience.  Before you take issue with what the person has said, look for a way to agree on something first.  Do this even if your challenger was less than diplomatic.

Some speakers worry because they are not good verbal fighters.  If an antagonist in the audience starts challenging their message, they fear they won’t be able to fight back effectively.

In fact, a speaker should not get into verbal fights.  It’s a no-win situation.  Regardless of the outcome, the speaker loses.

Obviously, if the audience member fights more effectively, the speaker loses.

But the speaker also loses if he or she verbally beats up the audience member.  The speaker looks like a bully and other audience members are troubled that one of their own was made to look bad.

Don’t worry about not being a good verbal fighter; it will just get you into trouble as a speaker.

An audience member’s question can tap a huge reservoir of knowledge you have.

It’s a good feeling when it happens.  You have total confidence in your ability to answer.  You are definitely a subject matter expert on this one.

Be careful.

You don’t want to go on and on until you have delivered an answer that could stand by itself as a separate talk.  Such an over-long answer will discourage additional questions and, potentially, divert attention away from your main theme.

Give a concise answer and then, if you think it will be appreciated, offer to speak to this audience member later.  If you would like to discuss the research further, catch me after the meeting.  I’ve unearthed some studies that are quite interesting but would take us off our topic if I talked about them now.

No matter how accomplished you are as a speaker, you will occasionally have trouble with an audience member’s question.

You may know what it is you want to say but it doesn’t come out right.  Hours later you’re still criticizing yourself.  I should have handled that better!

Even if others say “forget about it,” don’t forget about it.  Sit down and write out what would have been an excellent answer.

But it’s too late!  What’s the point?

If you make it a practice to work through what would have been an excellent answer, you’ll help yourself for the future.  Even if the same question never comes up, your ability to craft answers will be strengthened.

Handling questions is not just about knowing all of the necessary information.  There is a skill involved in formulating answers.  Practicing on real questions, even after the fact, helps develop that skill.

If someone asks you about a point you will be covering later in your presentation, is it okay to promise you will address it later, or should you answer?

I find it works best to do both.

By that I mean, give a brief answer that provides some value and then promise more information later.

Some presenters, determined to stay on track, will wave off a premature question with a quick “I’ll be getting to that later,” or “Please hold that question for now.  I promise I’ll answer it soon.”  Being so unaccommodating can come across as rude and discourage even timely questions from other audience members.    

A more considerate approach is to briefly answer the question and then promise more detail later.  It is true that these changes will lengthen our delivery times.  However, I have a slide coming later that shows how we can compensate for that.

Of course, if someone in a position of power is posing the premature question, you may have to go into more detail than you otherwise would.  But even then, you should be able to promise further detail later in the presentation. 

The key is to be both responsive to your audience and committed to your planned message.

You answer a question and a few minutes later someone asks the same question.

You feel compelled to say something about having already given an answer.  As I said earlier when this question came up…

Don’t.  Let it go.  Answer the question again without the corrective dig.  Only this time, keep your answer short out of consideration for the people who heard you answer it the first time.

Sure, maybe this person should have been paying better attention.  But, you are a presenter not a school teacher responsible for correcting behavior.  And, it’s in your best interest to be seen as someone who is considerate of audience members, not given to embarrassing them.

When an audience member asks a question and you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say you don’t know the answer.  Even if you are a subject matter expert, you can’t be expected to have every specific piece of information that might be requested.

Of course, you can’t just say you don’t know.  You need to include a promise that you will get back to the person with the requested information.  I don’t know the answer to that, but I will find out and get back to you.

In recent years I have noticed speakers putting a twist on this “get back to you” promise.  They ask the audience member to e-mail them with the question.  Would you do me a favor and e-mail that question to me.  I don’t want to forget it.

This e-mail request is transparently self-serving.  Instead of taking responsibility for the question, the speaker is pushing the responsibility back on to the audience member.  Clearly the hope is that the audience member will not follow through with an e-mail and the speaker can forget about it.

Do the right thing and maintain responsibility for the questions you get.  It’s okay to ask an audience member to write the question on the back of his or her business card (re: contact information), but you should follow through.

You’ve heard of customer service.  This is audience service.

Many speakers compliment questions.  That’s a good question.  Their intent is to encourage questions.

Interestingly, such compliments can have the opposite effect.

Think of it this way.  If every question is declared good or great, the speaker comes across as insincere.

However, if some questions are complimented and some are not, then it starts sounding as if a subtle form of grading is going on.  Then, everyone in the audience who was hesitating to ask something will decide not to.  After all, they were already unsure of their question and now they get the sense that the speaker is judging the quality of questions.  The speaker ends up discouraging questions instead of encouraging them.

Sure, you can thank people for their questions.  But why not just go straight into answering?  A sincere effort to answer is the best affirmation of a questioner’s participation.


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