One of the most challenging and yet most valuable parts of a presentation is the question and answer period at the end of the speech. Speakers often feel very vulnerable in question and answer sessions, but they don’t have to. In the Q and A, speakers can clarify ideas, increase credibility by the quality of answers, and resell key ideas.
Some people, of course, will take a question and answer session too casually. A famous scientist was often called upon to give his signature lecture, and he had a chauffeur who drove him to his engagements. The chauffeur would always come in, sit at the back, and listen. One day, the scientist was speaking at a place where no one had ever seen him before, so the chauffeur proposed a switch.
“Why don’t we trade clothing,” the chauffeur said, “and I’ll deliver your lecture? I’ve heard it enough times I feel pretty confident that I can give it as well as you can!” The scientist agreed to the switch. The chauffeur did a brilliant job while the scientist sat in the back of the room in the chauffeur’s uniform. After he concluded, however, there was time for questions and answers. The first question was highly technical, and, of course, the chauffeur had no idea what to say. Without missing a beat, however, he simply said, “That question is so elementary I think I’ll allow my chauffeur to answer it.”
To prompt good questions, let the audience know early in the presentation that you will take questions after your speech. People are more likely to ask questions if you tell them up front that they will have the opportunity to do so later. In addition, they will listen more closely if they know they can ask questions at the end.
Ask for questions in a positive way. Ask, “Who has the first question?” Look expectant after asking the question, with your hands gesturing towards the audience and a smile on your face as you await a query.
Keep your answers concise. Short answers allow you to respond to more people. Seek to have a 30-second answer to any question. If you take longer you may lose the attention of those who were not interested in the answer to that question. If you can answer a question with “yes” or “no,” then do so. Anticipate questions ahead of time and practice brief answers.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Follow this with, “I’ll find out and get back to you.” Trying to improvise an answer can be deadly because audiences can usually see by your nonverbal that you do not know the answer.
Give everyone a chance to ask questions. Don’t limit questions to one part of the room. Make eye contact with everyone as you answer the question of the individual.
Defuse the loaded question. Strip away the emotional words to find a question you can answer. Say, “I think what you are really asking is…”
Sometimes questions aren’t loaded at all, but are non-questions. Cut these off politely. Some contributors to a Q and A just want to give their opinion. To be courteous, watch for the person to take a breath and say “Thank you for your comment” and move on to the next question.
Give the audience opportunities to ask questions. The answer you give may be the most important information of the day for that person. Remember the Chinese proverb, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”