I have been asking the executives, managers and business students I work with to identify the top three concerns they have when called upon to deliver a work presentation. Everyone has their own personal torments, but one common concern is “questions.” Many are nervous about being asked questions before, during or after their presentation.
Why questions can be troublesome
Different people have different reasons for being concerned about questions, but they tend to fall into one of three main groups.
1. Interruptions: Questions before or during the presentation can disrupt the presenter’s momentum and train of thought. This is often a companion to another top concern: forgetting what you need or want to say. The concern is that if you take a question, you may have trouble recovering: picking up where you left off in your prepared remarks, and getting back on track.
2. Loss of control: Some are afraid that questions may be signs that the audience is growing restive. Questions may be perceived meddlesome or even as hostile acts designed to undermine the speaker’s authority or to hijack the presentation.
3. Lack of preparation: At the most basic level, the concern is that they will be asked a question to which they do not know the answer or struggle to remember and articulate the answer. Their concern is that not having a ready answer makes the presenter appear unprepared, incompetent or even ignorant.
Questions are not a sign of failure
Questions can be taken as a sign of failure. You failed to cover everything you needed to cover in the presentation. You have not been clear enough in your delivery. Many presenters are relieved when there are no questions at the end of their presentation. No questions? Great. Success!
Why questions are good
But questions are not only good, they are essential. The successful presenter wants to be asked questions. Responding to off-topic, nuisance or ill-informed questions will be addressed in another post, but good and even difficult on-topic questions are what you want as a presenter.
- Questions mean that at least some members of your audience are paying attention. They are engaged and can help draw other members of the audience in.
- A presentation is a shared experience between the presenter and members of the audience. The audience is not only present, they have a role to play. They bring a collective product, market or institutional knowledge to the presentation that effectively tests the value and strength of the presenter’s message. They want to be recognized as participants in this experience and the best way to be recognized is to ask questions.
- Audience members are also interested in what the other members of the audience are thinking and how they are reacting to the presentation. They appreciate good questions from other members of the audience.
- Questions represent instant feedback. Questions from the audience give the presenter a better sense of where the interests of the audience lie. Because you have to make decisions about what will fit into the time allotted for the presentation and how much information your audience can absorb, you will by definition be leaving things out. Any question will in effect just be giving you a helpful prompt re: something you need to cover.
- Finally, transforming the thinking of your audience is the objective of a successful presentation and it begins by planting or exciting questions in the minds of the audience. Questions from the audience indicate that you have been an effective catalyst for change.
How to respond to questions
The most important thing is to acknowledge a question and to thank the audience for the question. You can say: “That is a great question.” Or, “That is a really interesting question.” Or, “That is a really tough question.” Or anything to that effect.
Take a quick look around the audience once the question has been asked. If everyone is heads up and leaning in, you know this is a question that is of interest to everyone. If heads are down or attentions are turning elsewhere, you know that this question is esoteric. Tailor your answer accordingly.
You always have three seconds of silence to work with. So take a couple of seconds to think before responding. If you know the answer, keep your answer short. Just answer the question and offer to discuss it further with anyone who is interested after you finish the presentation. Try to always leave the audience wanting more.
There is no shame in not having the answer to every question that any member of the audience could possibly ask. Don’t speculate as to what the answer might be. If you don’t know the answer, you basically have two options. Either tell them you do not have that information at hand but you know where to get it and will provide it to them after the presentation, or tell them that you are very interested in that question or information, you will definitely look into it, and if the answer turns out to be useful your analysis and work you will incorporate it immediately. And again, thank them for the question.
The successful presentation is one that ends in discussion
There are two legendary performances in the theatre that ended in general riot. The first was the premiere of Victor Hugo’s romantic drama Hernani that challenged the French classical tradition. The second was the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. Both evoked strong emotional responses from establishment audiences who felt they were having a new, strange and wholly unacceptable art form imposed upon them. In the business presentation, even when presenting ideas that will be disruptive, we prefer to foment constructive discussion that centers on how best for all in attendance to proceed in acting upon the information they have just received. We do that by transforming the audience’s thinking. That means inviting questions from the audience.
So the successful presenter closes with, “Thank you for your attention. I hope you have questions.”