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Chapter 13: Professional Secrets of Question-and-Answer Sessions


More trouble is caused in the world by indiscreet answers than by indiscreet questions.

- Sydney Harris

A professor at Columbia University's Teachers College once gave me this humorous but accurate advice: "In every class you will have a student eager to argue, who will ask a lot of questions. Your first impulse will be to silence that pupil, but I strongly advise you to think carefully before doing so - that kid may be the only one listening."

Few speakers would say the question-and-answer period is the best, or most enjoyable, part of their speech. On the contrary, even some of the best speakers panic when it's time for the audience to talk back. They view question-and-answer periods as barriers looming between the presentation itself and applause and acceptance. But these sessions are proof your audience is involved and interested. In fact, Bill Lee, former chairman of Duke Power Company (now Duke Energy), has given speeches just to engage in a question-and-answer session, because it lets him get his audience involved.

Those few minutes at the end of a speech let you fill in gaps, emphasize certain ideas, and clear up misunderstandings. And the details you go back over and clarify are chosen by the people you are trying to persuade. It's participation, not confrontation. The active give-and-take of a question period yanks your audience out of that passive state known as listening. And you benefit - if you're prepared.

You Can Finish, But You Can't Hide

When people come to hear you speak, they expect two things: to hear your presentation and to raise questions about it. They may wish to know more about the subject, or they may want to contest some points. It's true that when you permit questions, you risk losing control to the audience, because for that moment the questioner is in the driver's seat. But remember that as the speaker you are automatically in a position of authority and you have the advantage. If you handle the questions - and the questioners - well, you extend the power of your speech and leave your audience not only informed but also impressed.

Your objective is to retain as much control for yourself as possible. You can say, "I will take any reasonable question on the information I'm sharing with you." Later on, if you get a difficult question, you can humorously add, "I said any reasonable question," and move on. The main drawbacks of the question period are your risk of being exposed to questions for which you are not prepared and the danger that questions may come from unfriendly, or even hostile, members of the audience. But you can virtually eliminate these risks through careful preparation.

Be Prepared for the Worst

You should practice the question-and-answer session just as you practice the rest of your talk. When you rehearse your speech before friends and family, encourage them to ask questions - tough ones - at the end. Think up hard questions yourself. Get to know your subject so well that you anticipate possible questions, and get ready to answer them. Find your most argumentative colleagues and friends and give them a field day: Chances are they will throw trickier stuff your way than your audience will.

Anticipating questions in advance means you are unlikely to be completely stumped or taken by surprise by a question from the audience. You can't predict and control everything, but when you operate from a position of strength and full preparation, there is nothing wrong with simply answering, "I don't know, but I can find out." Remember that you're in charge of the speech and the answers. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "I have never been hurt by anything I didn't say."

You're Still the Leader

People's fears about question-and-answer sessions revolve around these worries:

These fears vanish if you think of the question-and-answer session as something you control. The better your presentation is and the more direction you give the audience concerning questions, the more control you retain. Start by limiting the kinds of questions you have time for: "I will be dealing with questions that pertain to the subject I have covered." Laying the ground rules isn't defensive, it's a sign of organization and leadership. You're still the chosen speaker; you've been leading your audience throughout your speech, and that guidance should continue through the question-and-answer session.

In today's information age, it is impossible to have all the information on a given subject, especially if it's a broad one. As I stated earlier, there is nothing wrong with saying you don't know. But if you set boundaries and guidelines at the outset, you will limit the number of questions that fall outside your area of expertise.

Do you have to answer every question? No. If you feel you do have to catch everything, no matter how off-the-wall, you've already lost your leadership role. Set limits with grace, but set them. There is nothing wrong with telling someone his question isn't covered by your presentation, but that you would be glad to provide him with further information afterward. Your audience will respect you for it.

Banish these preconceptions about questions and you'll find yourself relaxing in spite of yourself. I've seen videotapes of people giving speeches and handling questions afterward; they look more comfortable during the question-and-answer sessions than during the speeches. That's not hard to understand; there is a naturalness to engaging in a dialogue that a speech can't match. Think of your audience as interested, not hostile, and you won't have to worry about what turn out to be good-natured dialogues.

The Right Time for Questions

Because the question period comes at the end of your speech, it's important to do it right and leave the audience with a good impression. Follow these tips to ensure your organization doesn't lapse during this period:

Exceptions to the Rules

Business presentations and training sessions can be far more interactive then speeches, and presenters often don't face a traditional question-and-answer session. In many business presentations (especially informal ones during meetings), the best time for questions can be during the talk, as they come up. This is tricky for speakers, who risk losing their place and momentum. Try this approach only as you become a more experienced speaker. Allow yourself to be interrupted if you have to; if the boss asks a question that fits in, answer it, but as a rule, explain why you would like to hold questions until the end.

There are two general strategies for taking questions in training sessions: You can stop and answer as you go along, or you can take questions after each section of your presentation. The first strategy can get you sidetracked unless you control it carefully; however, the second one doesn't let people ask questions as freely as they can if you take queries as they arise. How to organize the Q&A period is always a dilemma for a speaker. The way you take questions must be decided by analyzing your purpose, the extent of your content, the size of the audience, and the amount of time you have been allotted.

Training meetings have a tangible goal: to transfer a skill or technique to the audience. If people don't have questions answered as you go along, you will lose them as their understanding and grasp of the new material slips. As a general rule, ask people to jot questions down as you go along, and stop every 20 minutes or so to take them. If you have someone who just isn't keeping up, don't allow the whole session to drag; you'll alienate the rest of your audience. I tell the person I realize the concept is difficult and that it took me a long time to master it. I then ask him or her to talk with me during the next break.

What if No One Asks?

What if you ask for questions and nobody responds? This is unusual, unless the speech is on a topic that people are just not emotionally involved in. But if it does happen, it's usually for two reasons: You have answered all potential questions in your speech (pretty unlikely), or your audience feels uncomfortable about asking. Your job is to make them more comfortable. Even if the initial silence simply means no one wants to be first, it can be embarrassing for you. There are many good ways to get out of this spot:

Watch Your Manners

The manner in which you accept and answer questions is even more important than what you actually say. You set the tone and atmosphere with your very first answer, and the best way to send the right signal is to have a positive attitude toward all questions. If one person asks a question, it is probably on other people's minds, so when you answer that one person, you're answering everyone.

Because you probably can't decipher the motive underlying a question, you can't take each question at face value. Not all questions are sincere requests for information. Often people want to express their opinion, to show you up, and to demonstrate their wisdom and great intelligence. Your analysis of a question should focus on three things:

  1. The content of the question.

  2. The intent of the question.

  3. The person asking the question.

Never launch into an explanation without fully clarifying the question or being absolutely certain that you understand the question thoroughly. It's all too easy to think you understand what someone else is thinking. For example, if someone asks, "How much time should an employee spend on professional development?" a smart speaker would clarify first by asking, "Do you mean during regular working hours?"

Vague questions are traps for both the speaker and the audience. We are so used to them that we tend to answer too quickly. A classic is the inevitable job interview request: "Tell me about yourself." How can we know what the questioner wants? Yet most people plunge in and talk themselves into all sorts of trouble. Just as people try to count to 10 before losing their temper, the smart speaker will count to three while asking him- or herself whether the question needs to be clarified.

When you analyze the intent and the person behind the question, remember that argumentative people may be looking for recognition. Give it to them, but don't let them take over. You may lose a few points, but telling them that their question really requires more time and asking, "Can we get together after the meeting?" may be the best way to deal with these people. Long-winded people must be cut off, but you have to do it politely and tactfully. And if you get a real troublemaker who causes a disturbance, chances are your audience will express disapproval and ask him or her to sit down.

Make sure that you treat every question seriously and courteously. The occasional bad apple aside, most people are sincere in their desire for more information. The people in your audience have heard your ideas, and you can be sure they have reacted to them, especially if they are new, difficult, or controversial. Always remember that questions mean the audience is involved with you. Even if the question sounds negative, the questioner may just be expressing some anxiety or doubt. The question may just be the person's way of asking for reassurance. Answer politely and you reassure the whole audience, too.

3 Objectives to Assure Control During Q&A

It's just as important to get your points across in a question-and-answer session as it is during your speech; if you don't, you lose an important opportunity to persuade and lead your audience. You've got three interdependent objectives to keep in mind at all times when taking questions. The objectives are hard to separate from each other, and you will stay in control of the question-and-answer session only if you keep all three in mind.

  1. Maintain your credibility and control, no matter what happens. Any time you are not believable, you cast doubt on your entire presentation. And if you get angry or defensive, you lose control. Repeat the question - your audience needs to hear it clearly - and hearing it in your own voice will calm you down.

    My definition of assertive is knowing what you want and getting it effectively while you consider the rights of others. The key to success through assertiveness is staying calm, not being defensive, and being courteous. A powerful speaker is one who keeps control of a situation. If you lose that control by losing your temper, you'll never be able to reassert yourself with your audience.

  2. Satisfy the questioner. But remember, you don't have to answer the question fully. Don't spend too much time with one person. Unfortunately, most of us want to see that look of total approval and acceptance in the eyes of our questioners. But if you spend the time necessary to achieve that look, you will lose the rest of the audience. Answer in a way that makes your best point in relation to your overall objective, break eye contact, and move on. Saying "Jennifer, you've asked an excellent, complex question. Because we have many other people asking questions, this is the way I can answer it in a limited time" is a polite, honest response that keeps things moving along.

  3. Keep the rest of the audience on your side at all costs. Consider the entire audience. You have to let people know you're always considering their time and patience. If you're asked a multiple question such as, "How can I cope with not enough staff, not enough space, and a boss who gives me no real authority?" you might say, "You've asked me three very good questions. Because there are other people in the audience with questions, let me answer one and come back to the others if we have time." That way, you partially answer and still keep the audience with you. The audience will respect you for not letting the questioner monopolize the little time you have to spend with them.

    If you get a question out of left field, pause and ask, "Does anyone else here have a similar concern?" If people don't, answer the question briefly and tell the questioner you'll be happy to stay and speak with him or her after the presentation. This technique also works well with hostile questioners.

One More "Never"

In addition to never be boring, and never say "in conclusion," here's another never: Never ask, "Did that answer your question?" This is often a trap and one that is very difficult to escape. Do you think an argumentative person is going to say yes? A dynamic or argumentative questioner will try to hold on to the spotlight and ask for more clarification. Remember that there is no law that says you must answer every question fully. In a training session you should certainly try, but there are times when it is not possible. The most important of the preceding three objectives is to keep the rest of the audience on your side - too much time with one person will reduce your credibility and effectiveness with the rest of the group

Keep these objectives in mind and you will do fine. All revolve around consideration for members of your audience; and the more considerate you are of them, the more they will be on your side.

Coping With Commonly Asked Problem-Causing Questions

Upon occasion, you may find that you've been asked a question that puts you in a sticky situation. Here are some of these types of questions, and ways you can answer them quickly and professionally.

Loaded Question

Q:   How much damage has this allegation done to your agency?


A:   With respect, I don't agree with your premise. In fact...

Personal Opinion

Q:   What about your personal opinion?


A:   I don't believe the issue is my personal opinion. The issue is...

Question - Don't Know Answer

Q:   How much was the investment?


A:   I wouldn't want to give you off-hand information. I will get the right information for you.

Questions - You Know the Answer but You Are Not Allowed to Say

Q:   What was the amount of the offer?


A:   I'm not in a position to say because: (that information is confidential; the issue is before the courts; it would be inappropriate for me to comment; the issue is very sensitive; the issue is currently under discussion/ review/negotiation).

Getting Boxed In (2 Options From Which to Choose)

Q:   Are you going to increase funding or maintain the status quo?


A:   Our goal is to provide quality service.

Persistent Questioning

Q:   ...then why won't you reveal the strategy?


A:   As I mentioned, the strategy is in place, ready to go, and we'll announce it at the appropriate time. So with all due respect, it's pointless to go over the same ground again.

Open-Ended / Vague Question

Q:   Tell me about your organization.


A:   What specific aspect are you interested in?


Q:   There's rumor that other companies may be interested in developing a similar product ...


A:   It would be inappropriate to respond to rumors; we'll just have to deal with that issue if and when it arises or I've seen no evidence to support that rumor.

Multi-Part Question

Q:   What impact will the changes make...and will you be able to continue the same time or will you have to...?


A:   Let me begin with your first question. The changes will make us more efficient and more responsive to the public. With regard to the question of....

Never Underestimate the Power of Warmth

Some speakers set a positive tone by complimenting the questioner: "That's a perceptive question" or "That question goes right to the heart of the matter" establishes a warm, receptive atmosphere. Even if the question sounds truly hostile, you can still compliment the questioner: "We can always look to Jack to go straight for the jugular." This tactic is best used occasionally; if you begin every answer with a compliment, you will start to sound insincere. Try varying your adjectives and your phrases: "That's a really touchy question," "That's a truly appropriate question," or "I was hoping some one would ask that." There is no law that you have to preface each question with a compliment - just answer the question. If you do a good job that should be enough.

Save Your Jokes (or Use Them in Your Speech)

Resist the temptation to be witty or clever when answering questions. Audiences will think you are not taking them seriously, and they will identify, and sympathize, not with you, but with the brave soul who struggled to his or her feet and asked the question that you seem to think is silly.

Handling the Hostile Questioner

In general, speakers shouldn't worry that every questioner is out to get them; this is speaker paranoia. But occasionally a genuinely hostile question will get thrown your way. There is only one way to behave if this happens: Be courteous. And here's another "Never." Never - under any circumstances - become defensive, angry, or snide. If someone deliberately tries to embarrass you, being polite is especially effective. Audiences appreciate fair play and good manners. They will automatically reject the person who is making trouble and be on your side - if you continue to be polite and unruffled.

If you are dealing with a tough subject and expect a hostile audience, asking people to state their names, companies, and so on, can reduce the amount of questions, because many people do not like to volunteer this kind of personal information. This tactic can work at large rallies or in groups where people are not already acquainted.

Being polite doesn't mean you have to be a patsy. If the questioner is out of hand, you can cut him off. If he is especially provocative, you might consider the kind of reply General Hugh Johnson used occasionally: "I'll answer any fair question, but I won't answer a loaded question like this one."

You Don't Have to Go it Alone: Create a Mini-Panel

Many of my clients tell me this is very helpful because it takes the pressure off them and makes the Q&A portion more interesting for the rest of the audience. Here's how it works: Before your presentation ask a few intelligent, informed people if they would serve on your panel. Before starting the Q&A session, tell your audience that to make the session more valuable for them, you have asked some experts to provide answers and input. Then just call on the panel members as the need arises.

The Fine Points of Mastering Questions

Speakers who handle question-and-answer sessions well have mastered the fine points too:

Rules for Testing Your Answers

There are three tests every answer you give should pass: It should (1) inform, (2) persuade, and (3) tie in with your main purpose and objective. To be informed and persuaded is why your audience is present in the first place; the question-and-answer session is an extension and elaboration of your basic purpose. Make it work for you, and no matter how rough - or how pleasant - your reception is, always sincerely thank the audience for the time and effort they gave to the question-and-answer session and for the ideas they contributed.

End With Conviction

If you do end your talk with the question-and-answer session, do so before all the questions dwindle away. Try to end with a question from the audience that restates your position. Never keep going until some people are putting on their coats and shuffling up the aisles while one or two last questioners are lingering behind. "Has she finished yet?" one suffering listener asked another as she was departing the auditorium. "Yes," was the answer, "she finished long ago, but just won't stop." Stay in control. End the session yourself by saying, "That's all we have time for today; I want to thank you all for your contributions." Then deliver your conclusion with warmth and confidence. Come forward and mingle with the audience, especially if you have been standing behind a lectern.

If you prepare for questions, take them in stride, treat your audience courteously, and stay in control, the question-and-answer session changes from a time of dread to an enjoyable opportunity. Make it work for you. The back-and-forth nature of question sessions adds to your credibility: You're not just talking to people, you're engaging them. Enjoy it, and your audience will remember you for it.

Professional Projects: Prepare in Advance
  1. You have been asked to give a speech on a highly controversial subject - how to keep drug use out of professional sports. List two tough questions you expect and your answers to them.

  2. Observe people dealing with questions at the several presentations and meetings you attend. Try to find at least three techniques you can use and at least five that were ineffective.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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