I'm a staunch advocate of leaving time for audience questions. In my view, it should comprise fully half of the time allotted for your talk. Here's why: Audiences come to hear speakers and to contribute to the discussion. Nearly every person listening to you either came to the session with a question in mind, or has developed one after hearing you speak for just a few minutes--both good signs that you've chosen your topic well and are engaging them.
Q&A paves the way for future speaking gigs, too. Leaving out question time can make the difference between good reviews and not getting asked to speak again. Think, too, of the reverse: For most speakers who do offer questions, the idea of no questions is seen as a type of public speaking failure. That's particularly true for public officials and political candidates, as we can see in Jeb Bush dubbing Hillary Clinton "scripted" for not taking questions. Nothing wrong with a script, by the way, and some formats or events just don't lend themselves to questions.
But those who fear and avoid Q&A aren't worried about the type of event and have already moved past the logical arguments. Here's more perspective and a few tactics to practice so you can become a fully skilled public speaker who doesn't fear questions or leave them out:
- Understand that not every question is a challenge: This was news to many participants in our webinar, and I see academic researchers in particular assume that questions are challenges. Not so. Sometimes the questioner is just plain curious, or wants to hear you talk more on the topic. Check your reaction (see number 4 below) and try answering as if it were just a truly interested person asking.
- If you suspect there's more to it, ask a question back: If you think the questioner has an agenda or is testing you, ask a question back. "Tell me why you ask the question in just that way?" or "I've never had that question before. Tell me more about what you mean" are both great ways to learn more and buy some time to think.
- Determine whether it's a question or a statement: Some audience members rise to their feet to share facts, ideas, or perspectives as a way of adding to the conversation. You can respond simply by thanking them for sharing the information: "That is indeed a big issue, and I'm so glad you brought that to our attention. Thank you!" may be all you need.
- Respond, don't react: Take a cue from the world of media training and make sure that you are responding, not reacting, to questions. If your first reaction to a question is to get angry or critical of how stupid it is, you are not ready to answer in a non-anxious way.
- Work out your "I don't know" muscle: Many people feel they just can't admit not knowing something, and for them, Q&A is always going to be a problem. But if you can say "I don't know" when that's appropriate, you'll be a better and more credible speaker. Try out some clever ways to say it: "If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a millionaire!" or "I wish I knew that. We've been looking for that solution for a long time," are two good examples.
- If you're worried you won't know the answers, try planning your presentation so you leave out of it the information about which you're reasonably sure you will get questions. Leaving FAQs out of your talk lets the audience ask those questions naturally, and hey--you already know the answers. Lots of win for everyone.
- Plan for crickets: It's rare, in my experience, for audiences to have no questions. But you can look at What if nobody asks a question? for ways to prepare in advance for that problem, and at No, seriously: What if the room is silent during Q&A? for what to do in the moment.
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