Turning Question Time to Your Advantage
“ I learnt long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and, besides, the pig likes it.”
—Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw
The presentation graveyard
If you’ve ever been asked a tricky question by a four year old and answered it less than adequately, you’ve probably received the response, “Why?” This meant you had to have another go at answering the same question. And if you blew your second chance, the child might have kept you going with “why?” all afternoon, until you eventually lost patience with your little tormentor. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably experienced this more than once. Know what’s interesting? The child is in control every time. You 130 you can present with confidence see, the one who asks the questions is always in control. So why would you even consider handing over control of your presentation to your audience by introducing a time for questions? Well, here are a few good reasons you might want to.
Why allow questions at all?
Question time can be the death of a presentation. It can put the presenter on the defensive almost immediately—that is, unless you have a strategy for dealing with question time. The reason for including it must be to give you the opportunity to further support your presentation by giving the audience a chance to obtain specific information from you or raise concerns. A well-prepared presenter will skillfully use Q&A time to achieve the objectives of the presentation.
Different types of questions are meant to:
- Clarify information on a certain point
- Raise an issue that has not been covered
- Suggest an alternative point of view
The manner in which people ask questions gives you a clue about the purpose of the question. For example, does the question seek information, raise concerns, test you, challenge your facts, or oppose your proposal?
A well-prepared presenter anticipates audience concerns and areas of interest, and addresses them during the presentation. Anticipate questions you might not wish to cover up front and prepare your answers in advance so that you are not taken by surprise. For unanticipated questions, a direct answer is best.
If you’re asked a question you struggle to answer, admit that you don’t know, offer to find out the answer, and get back to them. Release yourself from the burden of having to know everything and seize the opportunity to demonstrate your honesty and sincerity. Under no circumstances should you “wing it” or guess the answer
When the floor is opened for questions there is sometimes a pregnant pause until someone breaks the ice. You can use one of two techniques here:
1. Have a FAQ (frequently asked question) prepared in advance and pose it as the first question by saying, “I am often asked . . . ” Then answer the question. This should take about 40 seconds, giving your audience time to formulate questions to follow your opening one.
2. Allow about 10 seconds to wait for a question; someone usually comes to the fore. If no one does, hold up a currency note (amount depending on how much you can afford!) and offer it to the first person who asks a relevant question.
Staying in control
The length of your answer often defines, from an audience perspective, whether you are in control or not. People who are unsure of themselves often waffle on at length, subconsciously believing that the more information they impart, the more convincing they will be. Nothing can be further from reality. The most convincing answers are concise and “to the point.” A 30-second answer is, in most instances, quite sufficient. Where a questioner asks you more than one question at a time, it is often easier to answer the last part first and work your way back. That way, if you forget the first part of the question, you can ask the person to repeat it for you.
Depending on the nature of the audience, question time can sometimes throw the presenter a few curve balls. A confident “thank you, I’m glad you asked that question!” will often disarm the smart Alec, but be sure you have an answer.
Another technique is to refer the question to an associate who may be an expert on the subject. Be careful of putting your associate on the spot, though. You might say, “John is in fact the expert on this aspect of the project. John, would you care to answer the lady’s question, or would you prefer to chat with her afterward?”
Do not allow question time to get out of hand. Particularly, don’t allow one individual to hijack your presentation. If it’s clear this is happening, isolate the questioner by turning your body toward the other side of the room for the next question. Unless a specific time has been set aside for questions, up to five questions from the floor are usually sufficient, unless you have factored in more time. Any additional questions can be directed to you after the presentation.
Never end with “that’s all we have time for, folks!” Your time frame is your problem, not theirs, and this may annoy those who still have their hands up. Rather, say something like this: “I’m going to move in to the conclusion now and ask that any further questions be directed to me in the lobby afterward.” That way, no one is likely to be offended.
Finally, question time can be used as a time buffer. For example, if you have an hour to present, and you have factored in 20 minutes for question time and your segment starts 10 minutes late (I hope through no fault of yours!), you can shorten question time to 10 minutes. Then you won’t have to rush your presentation.