Why it's important to repeat questions

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I recently spoke at an event where all of the talks had a moderator who introduced the speaker and then sat in the front row, equipped with signs, indicating to the speakers how long they had left: 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes - time's up!

They also had another helpful sign. It read: "Repeat the question."

Taking questions from the audience during or after a talk is common in most scenarios (TED and TEDx talks are some of the rare exceptions). When you are speaking in a small room, communication with the audience isn't usually a problem. The bigger the room, the more difficult it gets, though. Even if you, as the speaker, can still hear the person, it's possible that other audience members, sitting in the rows behind that person, can't hear them. So it makes sense to repeat the question for them.

But the most common reason for that "Repeat the question" sign is that the talk is being recorded; and no matter how good the acoustics are, the question will usually be inaudible in the recording. So you're being asked to repeat the question not for the benefit of the audience in the room but for those who watch the video of the talk later.

In theory, this is all well and makes perfect sense. In practice, however, it can be hard and tedious to do, especially if you get a lot of questions. Even if you remember (or are being reminded, with a helpful sign) to repeat the question, it just feels awkward doing it. Even if the benefits are obvious and even if it gives you some extra time to think about your answer.

It's easy enough to do for a straight question. The cases that I'm struggling with are when a person asks a long-winding question. Or they have a comment first and then ask a question. Then you're forced to remember everything the person said, summarise and repeat it and only then can you actually answer the question. Often enough, what takes a long time to go through can be handled with a short and simple reply, so it feels tedious having to go through all these motions.

Watching the recording of that recent talk, I noticed how awkward these moments are in the video. You see me staring at something off-screen while I concentrate on listening to the question (which you can't hear), trying to understand and remember it at the same time. So there is what feels like a long time where nothing really happens before I get around to repeating and answering the question. I wonder if it would make sense to cut out that silence, thus making it less awkward for viewers.

Apart from that aspect - repeating questions is necessary. If someone goes on and on for a long time, you can (and probably should) interrupt them - politely! - and either check "if I understand you correctly, you're asking...?" Or maybe ask them to clarify where they're heading. But that'll only safe you some time and won't free you from repeating the question.

Look at it from the other side: It's very annoying to watching a video of a presentation where you can't hear the question; because often you won't be able to guess what has been asked from the answer alone. You feel like you missed something important, but there's no way to get that missing piece of information (other than maybe contacting the speaker and asking them if they happen to remember what the question was).

So this is a case where you have to keep your other audience in mind - the one "out there", that may be watching your talk weeks or even years after you originally gave it. Add this to your list of things that are in your responsibility as a speaker to make sure that your audience (mainly your "other" audience in this case) gets the most out of your talk.

(Photo: Yours truly, listening to a question during said talk)

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Creative Commons Licence "Why it's important to repeat questions" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.