Don't Be Afraid of Questions

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A common myth seems to be that speakers are afraid of questions during their presentations. At least that is what I take from the fact that a lot of books and articles on presentations encourage speakers to accept questions. But then again, I've never seen a talk that didn't end with the ritual question from the speaker to the audience: Any questions?

So where does this supposed fear of questions come from?

I think there are different aspects at work here. For one, many speakers are reluctant to accept questions during their actual presentation for fear that it would throw them off course. They are doing their best trying to give a good presentation and fear the distraction. The other aspect is that they may fear losing their credibility when they don't know the answer to a question.

Interruptions

Let's look at interrupts through questions first. In my experience, most questions that pop up during a presentation are easy to answer. The audience member may only seek confirmation that they understood something correctly. Or they have an example (so it's not really a question but a confirmation - they are on your side!). Or they are thinking ahead and bring up a point that you plan to discuss soon anyway. These sorts of questions are easy to handle - it only takes a sentence or two and you can go back to your presentation.

If these sorts of interruptions throw you off, you may want to practice a bit more before your next presentation, so you feel more confident that you really know your content. Also, the audience won't mind if you take a moment (and a deep breath) after a question to get back into the flow of your presentation.

If you get a question that would take you off on a tangent, then you may want to politely decline (but mention why) and offer to be available for discussion after your talk. Sometimes, however, such a question is an indication that your audience was expecting something else from your presentation. As long as it's only a single person, it's usually safe to (again, politely) decline the request. But if you get more of these questions, then you should consider changing course and possibly abandon the rest of your planned talk and switching to a q&a scenario instead. If you prepared properly and researched your audience before your presentation, this shouldn't really happen. But you may want to keep this approach in mind, just in case.

Challenges

What makes people reluctant to accept questions is the fear of losing credibility when they can't answer the question - or when the correctness of the presentation's content is challenged.

The solution to the first challenge is simple: If you really don't know the answer - admit it. You are not expected to know everything. Offer to do some research and get back to the person asking with the results (don't forget to get their name or business card).

Sometimes you will be challenged by a question - and that is probably what people fear the most: Someone in the audience will stand up and say, with conviction, that what you just told them is wrong. How can you handle such a situation?

First of all, if you prepared properly for your talk, this should hardly happen (or be a problem). If you cover a controversial topic, then you surely came across other opinions and can argue why you chose the position you picked for your talk. Or it could be that there's outdated or wrong information floating around still; then, again, you should be prepared to counter that.

In the - rare, I would hope - instance that the question does really challenge your position, it's best to admit it. If you can't easily dispute the claim, then standing by your position - despite the doubt being raised by the question - will make you look stubborn and you'll lose a good portion of the support from your audience. Depending on how central to your talk the point in question is, you could accept that there's dispute and suggest to carry on under the premise of your position. If it's really the central point of your talk that is being challenged - and I've never seen this happen or have heard about such an incident - then it would probably be best to stop with your presentation and have an open discussion about it.

Of all the presentations I've attended over the years, I can remember a few incidents where minor corrections came from the audience - usually small factual errors that didn't really challenge the overall message of the talk.

The only incident with a bit of a dispute that I can remember was when a keynote speaker made a specific claim and someone from the audience stood up and pointed out that she had written a book on the topic where she actually showed the opposite of what was claimed. I remember that the speaker didn't handle it too well (he couldn't bring himself to admit that he might be wrong on this point), which actually damaged his reputation with this audience somewhat. I would file this particular incident under insufficient preparation - the keynote speaker was not part of the community (which is often a good thing, to get some fresh ideas from an outsider's point of view) but obviously hadn't done his homework. As I said, this was a rare exception and it could have been avoided.

Summary

In summary, don't fear questions and don't suppress them. Most of the time, they will be simple questions that are easy to answer with a sentence or two, so they won't cost you any time or throw you off course. If you do your homework of researching your audience and watching out for controversy over the topics you cover, you will be able to answer questions to the satisfaction of the audience.

As the author Robin Williams (not be confused with the actor) wrote:

If you can't field questions about your subject, you shouldn't be talking about it.

(Image Credits: "Co-op Info Session 24" by Hector Alejandro, from Flickr)

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Creative Commons Licence "Don't Be Afraid of Questions" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.