Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Speakers, stop talking: How to let questioners get a word in, edgewise

Some speakers view questions as an open door...and barrel right through it, with answers so long they might qualify as mini-speeches. That happens not just in Q&A after a speech or presentation, but in media interviews, where you can almost hear the interviewee take a deep breath and keep going. Here's a classic example from Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation: Science Friday:
Sometimes the scientist will do very well in the pre-interview, but put them in front of a microphone and they don’t do well – one launched into an eight-minute PowerPoint presentation. We reverted to ‘let me summarize and you say yes or no.’ I asked one scientist about why one alternative energy source is better than another, and he launched back into the history of civilization and how cavemen used fire. When we got to the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, I stopped him. 
When I coach speakers and use this example, I ask, "Did that speaker succeed?" The answer's always no, on many counts. He didn't answer the question--something the audience expects--and presumed too much about what the interviewer wanted to get at with that question. He lost the chance, perhaps, to say more about what he's doing today, rather than the full history of his field. And if you are speaking to a live audience, that chatty response is just shutting out introverts, shy audience members and those not aggressive enough to shout you down. Is that the effect you wish to have?

Keeping your answer short is important for a variety of reasons, from letting reporters do their job in an interview to making sure your audience members don't feel silenced. If you have trouble putting on the brakes on and letting your questioner get a word in edgewise, you'll benefit from practice with partners and friends ahead of time. Walk through the questions you expect, the questions you want and the questions you fear, and have your friends clock your answers and suggest shorter paths to success. Use these tactics to keep your answers thoughtful and shorter:
  1. Use a three-step formula for every answer: It's Pause. Answer. Stop. Pause so you take a quick moment to gather your thoughts and make sure you're responding, not reacting. Answer what was asked, without too much embellishment. Then stop. If the questioner wants to hear more, you'll find out quickly.
  2. Put some checks on your assumptions about the question: Many long-winded answers get their start when the speaker assumes the questioner wants to know several things, instead of just one. An easy way to focus and narrow down your answer is to turn the tables, briefly, by asking a question or two of your questioner. Then proceed down that narrower corridor.
  3. Don't make your default a description of the entire history of your field of expertise. This is a professional liability for scientists and other subject-matter experts, and it suggests that they fear the questioner won't understand the answer of today without learning (in capsule form) everything they themselves were taught to get to this point. Problem is, that's often too large a capsule for the rest of us to swallow. A better approach: Answer today's question, but hint at some directions you'd like the follow-up question to take, just in case there's a follow-up. In the example above,  you might say, "Knowing what we know right now, I'd rather bet on wind technology than hybrid vehicles, because they have so much more potential to change the world economy" is a direct answer that suggests there's more to say.
  4. Think of your answer as a menu. If you have plenty of answer and aren't sure how much the questioner wants to order, offering a menu in your answer is a smart idea. Narrow yourself down to three options, stated briefly, then stop--and let the questioner choose which one to explore further.
  5. Remember the introverts in your audience. Introverts are great listeners, but if you don't give them an opening--and a clear closing to each of your statements--you'll be cutting them off without realizing it. Use the pause-answer-stop formula to keep the lines open so none of your audience members needs to talk over you to get in a question. It's just one of the things extroverted speakers can do for introverts.
Do you have pet peeves about speakers who answer too completely? Share them in the comments, please.

Introverted speakers: Check out my November 27 workshop on public speaking and presenting for introverts. Registration is open until November 16 or when all seats are filled, but you'll get a good discount if you register by November 2.