Encouraging Questions

by Speaking Tips | March 8, 2004

Have you ever noticed that questions and answer sessions really add to some presentations while for others they seem to drag the energy down? When a question and answer session is tacked on to a presentation as a pro forma afterthought, the audience senses that the presenter is not interested in interacting with them. As a result, the presenter is likely to encounter dead silence when they ask if there are "any questions?" Now there are twenty minutes to fill and no plan, a very scary situation.

To get comfortable with Q&A sessions and questions generally, start weaving questions throughout your presentations. Learn to use them in the analysis, objectives, design, delivery and evaluation phases of your presentation design. Questions are versatile and can serve many functions. Among other benefits, questions can focus attention, stimulate interest, prompt feedback, make issues memorable, foster audience interaction and provoke thought. Consider questions as a compliment to you and your presentation. Challenging ideas arouse thought and inquiry. Dull presentations make people head for the exit.

Design questions into your content and delivery:

  • Title: Why Knowledge Management?
  • Opening: What is the biggest problem facing researchers today?
  • Content: Design the body of the presentation around a small number of key questions.
  • Ending: In light of these facts, can you afford not to act?

Planning

As part of your analysis phase before the event, ask a few people representative of the audience for their questions on your topic. This can be done at a previous gathering of the group or via email. It is an excellent way to discover the audience's range of knowledge, experience, vocabulary, values and concerns regarding your subject plus it allows you to structure your presentation to match the audience's profile.

Anticipate the questions you might be asked. It is estimated that presenters can anticipate 80 to 90% of questions an audience will ask. Purposely leave out a pertinent detail, for instance deadline information. If you are using slides, hold back several and use them to answer certain kinds of anticipated questions. If no one asks those questions, you can comment "A question I frequently get asked is..." and show your slides. In addition, ask yourself beforehand what questions you hope no one asks and then prepare to answer them.

Implementation

Ask for questions the audience has at the beginning of your presentation. Write these questions (or enlist a scribe to help) on a flip chart and cross them off as you cover each question. Questions asked will almost always fall within your prepared remarks but usually in a different sequence and expressed in different terms. Remind people that the only dumb question is the one they fail to ask.

Note that encouraging questions during a presentation is usually best with smaller groups and works well with reports, proposals or technical briefings where the audience needs to clarify details as the presentation unfolds. Remember to announce at the beginning that questions on the fly are ok. Answer questions succinctly so they don't interrupt the flow of your ideas.

Question and Answer Sessions

When a Q&A session has been scheduled, let the audience know up front that there will be one. Tell them when it will happen and how long it will last. Don't make the common error of letting your presentation ramble on and extend into time scheduled for questions. When your presentation is complete, announce the question session in an open ended, conversational way.

There are several things you can do to help ensure the success of a Q&A session. Begin by ensuring that the seating arrangement encourages discussion. Provide a means for you audience to jot down questions as they listen to your presentation. Suggest questions that have been asked by other audiences. You could even consider priming a friendly member of the audience to ask a pertinent question to start the ball rolling.

Make sure you understand the question being asked and direct your answer to the entire audience not just the person asking it. Occasionally someone may ask a question to which you do not immediately know the answer. When this happens, admit it. Its a good idea to make clear your level of expertise, experience or point of view at the beginning of your presentation. This provides the foundation for responding "that's out of my area" however do offer to find out and get back to the person.

You may also occasionally be asked personal, hostile or (more often) irrelevant questions. These should be politely deflected with a generic "see me afterwards" response. Don't let an interesting but tangential question trigger a whole new speech from you. Keep your answers short and to the point.

In large groups, have the organizer place microphones at strategic locations so that people asking questions can be heard by the entire audience. Where necessary, repeat the question from the podium or lecturn.

Sometimes the question period is so animated that questions cannot be covered in the time allotted. When the time allotted for questions is running out, announce one more question and suggest post presentation ways to contact you and when and how you will respond. If you do this, convey a sincere openness to be contacted. Consider if there are ways to share these questions and answers with all members of the audience.

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