Public Speaking Tip 6 : How to handle questions (crowd control)

Handling questions was certainly one of the things I most feared when I started speaking at conferences. If there is one thing you take away from this post, it should be this.

“Never bullshit!”

Here’s a comment Jonathan Lewis left on my first post in this series.

“I think a very important thing to believe before anything else is that it’s perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” if someone asks a question you can’t answer immediately.”

It sounds so simple, but it takes a surprising degree of confidence to say this when you are in front of an audience.

Here are some general thoughts on handling questions and basic crowd control.

  • If you are nervous and think questions will throw you off your stride, ask at the start if people can keep their questions until the end.
  • Sometimes you explain a topic in layers, adding information piece-by-piece. If someone in the audience wants to ask a question part way through that process, suggest they wait until you’ve finished that section, in case the upcoming material already answers their question.
  • Always repeat the question back to the audience (I’m crap at remembering to do this). This serves a number of purposes. It’s a good check that you have understood the question. It allows the rest of the audience to hear the question, before you answer it. It gives you time to think. :)
  • Educated guesses can be OK, provided they are presented as such. For example, you might say something like, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that X and Y, which would make me think the answer is probably Z, but it’s a guess and I would have to test that to be sure.” Of course, it depends on the specific question and the “supporting evidence” for your guess.
  • If someone asks a completely off-topic question, ask them to come and speak to you at the end of the session. I say something like, “That’s a bit beyond the scope of this session. Come and see me at the end and we can talk about it.”
  • If you are struggling to understand a question, say so and ask them to come and speak to you at the end of the session. Don’t waste everyone’s time trying to fathom it out.
  • If a question requires an answer that will take a significant amount of time to put across, say so and ask them to speak to you at the end of the session.
  • Use the questions you are asked to help refine your presentation, so they don’t need to be asked next time.

The reaction to the question and answer slot at the end of a session seems to split the audience into three distinct sections.

  1. The people who hate Q&A. You can see them itching to leave. Some just get up and walk out, which is fine.
  2. The people who love Q&A. They would happily keep you talking for the rest of the day. I’ve actually done sessions where I’ve spent longer answering questions after the session was over, than the session itself. I love speaking to people about this stuff, so I’m happy to do this.
  3. The people who don’t care. They’ll just carry on reading their email until the Q&A is over. :)

With that in mind, you have to exercise a little crowd control. I would suggest you draw the session to a close, which allows people to leave, but suggest if anyone wants to stay for a Q&A, that’s fine. When you are in other people’s sessions, check out how they manage questions. You will often pick up new ideas this way.

Cheers

Tim…

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