Questions – Part 2 – Taking them
Often you’re given a slot – say 45 minutes, with a description like “35 minutes to talk and 10 minutes for Q&A.” The problem with that description is that it also implies a structure – you speak for 35 minutes and then the audience can ask questions for 10 minutes.
This also connects with one of two common models that speakers set-up – the ‘I’ll take questions at the end’ verses the ‘I’ll take questions at any time’ model. And most audiences are used to this distinction. But, I have a problem with the ‘I’ll take questions at the end’ model in that it strongly implies to the audience ‘be quiet and listen while I talk’ – I don’t mind leaving space at the end of a talk to take questions, that might be very appropriate, but to refuse questions while you’re talking I think is a mistake (though there may be a few valid exceptions in formal settings or very large audiences), and in my experience most audiences are pretty good with question asking etiquette.
But hang on… what about the audience member who won’t stop asking questions or asks long winded questions, or those that are irrelevant? You do need to do something about questions that are detracting from the value of the session – and unless you’ve really messed things up, the audience will be on your side, and thinking the same as you.
With long questions, at some point you may have to interrupt with something like “it sounds like there’s a lot of background to the question, how about we chat afterwards,” or you may be able to perceive what the question is, so do that. Take your decision based on the reaction of the audience, if the background is enthralling, great, if it’s not, interrupt.
With someone asking repeated questions, and on the assumption that they are not adding good value to the session, after answering their latest question, you might explicitly ask for questions from elsewhere – answer the question and then, “gosh, you have lots of questions, who else has a question” and eventually, “you clearly have lots of questions, perhaps we can talk afterwards.”
With irrelevant questions, you have to make a judgment or ask, is this a useful question to answer for a large portion of the audience? Otherwise, “I wasn’t expecting that question, it does take me off topic, is it OK to cover it after the talk?”
Generally, questions can be really beneficial, helping you delivery the most relevant content. But if they are devaluing the talk for the majority of the audience, they will want you to do something about it, and will support you. Take comfort and responsibility from that.
In summary, if you’ve built a reasonable relationship or rapport with the audience, then they will want you to deliver a good talk and will support your sensible decisions that help them get the value they were expecting. Unless there’s a really good reason not to, be willing to take questions at any time.
That’s it for now, if you have questions…