Questions & Answers

January 5, 2010

When to take questions

It is useful to state, at the outset of a presentation, how you would prefer to handle questions.  Can people just shout up, or would you prefer them to wait to the end?

For smaller audiences of up to about 50 people, I usually find it better to keep it informal and offer to take questions from the floor as you are going along.  As a speaker, you can always reserve the right to delay answering a question until later in the presentation, when you will be covering that particular aspect of the topic.

For novice presenters who may be more nervous, I would suggest that you would be better leaving questions to the end. Near the start of your presentation say “I would prefer to run through my presentation, which will hopefully tell you all you want to know, and if you have any questions I will take them at the end.”

How to answer a question

When you ask the audience a question, put your hand up, this shows them how you would like them to respond, (assuming you want a show of hands from your audience).

Prepare for the worst

Questions from the floor are one of the few things in a presentation that you cannot plan in advance, however you can prepare for them.  Think, ‘What are the three worst questions you could be asked?’  and then devise answers for these three questions.  It will boost your confidence just knowing that you have the answers whether or not they are ever asked.

Don’t jump in

If you give the same presentation on a regular basis, you will find the same questions being raised time and time again.  There are two key points to note if this occurs.  Firstly, you should consider changing your presentation to include the answer to those questions.  Secondly, always wait until the questioner has completely finished his or her question before giving an answer.  If it is a question you are expecting, it is tempting to jump in with the answer but their question may actually be different from what is normally asked.  By jumping in you are not giving the questioner sufficient respect.  You may have heard the question many times before, but to the questioner and this audience it is a new and valid question.  You never know, it may not be the question you were expecting.

Time to think

Thinking off the top of your head can be difficult.  Have a technique prepared that will give yourself some thinking time.  Techniques I have seen used include: cleaning your glasses, drawing a square on a white board or taking a drink of water.

Paraphrasing and repeating the question back to the audience, so they can all hear what was being asked, gives you a chance to think about the answer and ensures that you are answering the right question.

Eye Contact

To avoid question time turning into a conversation between one or two people and yourself, ensure that you give the questioner only 25% of your eye contact and the rest of the audience 75%.  If you do not want a follow up question from the same person, ensure you are not looking at the questioner when you come to the last part of your answer. The normal practice is to look at the questioner, to check that you have answered their question to their satisfaction; this gives them the opportunity to ask another question. By not looking at the questioner, as you end the answer, you can move straight on to the next topic and they are very unlikely to interrupt you.

An added tip from David Cotton, Owner, Wize-Up Learning and Development Ltd is:

If you ask the group a question and someone volunteers an answer, walk backwards and away from the respondent. That way you don’t end up having an exclusive conversation with the person who answered the question, and it forces them to speak up so everyone can hear, because you are moving as far away from them as possible. I see poor presenters walking towards the person who answers – this excludes the rest of the group and allows the person to speak quietly.

Never argue in public

No matter how controversial a question is asked, never get into an argument with a member of the audience.  If you argue with one, the effect is the same as if you are arguing with everyone; it will ruin your presentation!  If anyone is being too confrontational, you need to find a polite way of diffusing the argument and then moving one with the rest of your prepared presentation.

When somebody insists on asking too many questions, or is getting in to too much detail, politely suggest that you carry on this discussion after the presentation.

Getting the ball rolling

Sometimes it can be difficult to elicit the first one or two questions from an audience. Most people are quite shy about asking questions in case it shows them up in a bad light.  However, once one or two questions have been asked you will find people become more relaxed about asking questions and soon you can be in danger of the presentation degenerating into a question and answer session.  This may or may not be a bad thing depending on your objectives and the size of the audience.

When you want people to start asking questions, it is wise to plant a colleague in the audience with one or two pre-agreed questions to get the ball rolling.  If no questions are forth coming then she/he can step in.

Don’t End with a Q&A Session

Finally, never end your presentation with a Question & Answer session. Your presentation must finish with a call to action which tells your audience how to fulfill your objective.  Give your call to action after the Q&A session has finished.


Presentation Training and Coaching is available from the author of this blog. Please visit my presentation training  website.

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