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May 01, 2011

Training Tip 11: Handling Questions, Part I

OK, you have gotten through the body of your presentation satisfactorily. Time to relax, right? Nope, there is one hurdle left: The Question and Answer period.

This is when some presenters wilt and others shine. With a few tips, some practice and a modicum of intestinal fortitude, you can shine every time. Here's how:

Anticipate questions. With most topics, it's easy to compile a list of probable questions. Take a little time to plan how you will approach the most difficult. At your option, you can pre-empt these questions by addressing them yourself during the body of your presentation.

Set the ground rules. At the beginning of your talk, tell the audience whether you will be taking questions, and if so, when. Taking questions only after you have finished speaking has much to recommend it.

Consider using question forms. Training Tip 10 explained the many advantages of question forms. Experience has shown that the use of question forms can make dealing with questions much easier.

Ask yourself the question you most want to answer. At the beginning of the Q & A period, tell the audience "People often ask [whatever]". This lets you start strong with an answer that will help you get your message out. This technique also encourages others to ask questions. For similar benefits, some speakers have been known to plant a question with a friendly audience member.

Maintain appropriate eye contact. Focus intently on the questioner when he is speaking, but don't direct your answer only to the questioner.

Ask the questioner to elaborate if the question is unclear. Paraphrasing the question can be an effective technique.

Repeat the question. In many venues, questions will be inaudible to most members of the audience. Repeating the question also reduces the possibility of misunderstanding. Finally, repeating the question can gain a few seconds to formulate your answer.

Avoid the trap of believing you must know the answer to every question. No one knows everything. Offering to look up the answer after the presentation is often the best approach. Some speech experts recommend that if you are stumped, you solicit answers from the audience. Exercise care with this approach. It might work in some situations, like giving a presentation at the OGE conference. It's presumed that many in the OGE conference audience will have significant ethics expertise. On the other hand, this approach could be a disaster when training agency employees. Soliciting audience opinions in that context can forfeit the presumption of authority that your cogent presentation has just reinforced.

Compliment the questioner if deserved. Some speech instructors discourage the practice of complimenting an audience member for asking a good question. Their theory is that this will discourage other audience members from asking questions for fear theirs won't be as good. My experience has been exactly the opposite. I've gotten multiple benefits from complimenting good questions. I will sometimes even make a big deal of thanking the questioner for reminding me of such an important point. If handled well, the compliment will serve to emphasize an important point I want to make. In my experience, compliments also tend to encourage other audience members to ask "good" questions, i.e., ones that will also earn the approbation of the authority figure in front of the room (you).

End strong. Questions all answered? No questions? Either way, whatever you do, don't say something like "Well, I guess that's it" and creep off stage. Reiterate a key point you wanted to make and thank the audience for their attention. 

Part II of our Handling Questions series will appear in the June 1 Training Tips column.


Provide your suggestions and examples in the Comments section below. Biographical information about our Training Tips columnist is available.

Posted by J. Lawson in Training Tips | Permalink


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