Why go to all the trouble of preparing a speech when you can just take questions? I’ve been asked that question many times by executives I’ve worked with that aren’t comfortable with the idea of all that focus on themselves, or the work involved in getting a speech ready, or simply can’t think of anything particularly earth-shattering to say.
If you’re not sure what you want to say, Q&A can seem like a very good idea.
That’s precisely when you should resist it most strongly. The basic problem with Q&A is that you’re letting other people set the agenda. You’re not in control. Of course, you can decide not to answer the question, but that can make you look like you’re hiding something, or unprepared, or weak, and so on. So you’re stuck, on the whole, with whatever’s asked, and you just have to do the best you can answering whatever comes up.
Moreover, while many executives believe that they’re better in spontaneous answers to unscripted questions, that format raises the odds that they’ll say things they shouldn’t. If the press is present, there’s the risk of making news unfortunately and unnecessarily.
In addition, the whole presentation may end on a down note despite the best efforts of everyone involved if the last question is something like, “So, tell us about that corruption scandal!” But even when the questions are positive and the executive is on message, spontaneous answers tend to be sloppy. It’s rare the executive who doesn’t ramble a bit when asked a question she likes on a subject with which she’s familiar. Executives, like just about everyone else, enjoy displaying expertise.
In short, Q&A is a crapshoot.
But there’s a deeper problem with Q&A — and this goes for the fifteen minutes at the end of a speech that’s devoted to Q&A as well as to an entire Q&A session. That is it’s almost impossible to tell a coherent story through questions. And because getting information through the ear is a very inefficient way to get (and retain) information, you give up the chance to tell a good story that your audience can remember, and your audience gives up any hope of getting something substantive out of the talk.
People remember the last thing they hear, if they remember anything, so having Q&A at the end of a talk ensures that the worst, most incoherent bit is what they’ll be struggling to remember.
So my recommendation is to take questions as they come up, or at least take them about three-quarters of the way through a talk, saving a stirring bit of concluding rhetoric for the end. That way, you’ll at least give the audience something reasonable to remember.
All that said, there are still a number of strategies for handling Q&A that can make it better. I’ll introduce them as a series of questions and answers, of course.
OK, so Q&A is perilous. How can we control the potential damage?
1. Prepare your executive. Give her a mock interview, asking the most difficult questions you can work up. Grill her relentlessly, and the actual event will seem easy by comparison.
2. Train him in spontaneous speaking. The way to give a coherent answer off the cuff is to think for a moment, get a headline response, state it, then give a few details or supporting arguments, then repeat the headline. If you train executives to speak in this way, they are less likely to go off message, lost in the thickets of their own rhetorical mysteries and excesses. Remember: headline — supporting points — headline. That’s all.
3. Videotape her to help with body language. The biggest giveaway is often not a word, but a defensive gesture. When an executive is talking on difficult subjects, she needs to be schooled in open, clear, frank non-verbal behavior. I’ve seen many an executive ruin a good answer with suddenly crossed arms or a scowl at the wrong moment.
How do you handle a heckler or a questioner who won’t shut up?
I love this question! It’s actually quite easy, as long as you’re willing to do the counter-intuitive thing. Your urge will be to get away from the heckler, or to urge a larger person in the audience to knock the heckler senseless. Fight those urges. Both have downsides.
Instead, walk toward the questioner, and align your body with him or her. In other words, if the person is sitting in a chair facing the stage, stand next to them facing in the same direction. That will shut up 99.9% of hecklers. For that last 1%, a gentle touch on the shoulder will finish them off.
Wasn’t that simple?
What’s the first thing you should say after a question has been asked?
This is extraordinarily important. Your first move should always be to paraphrase the question back to the questioner. There are a whole host of reasons for this. First of all, it’s likely that not everyone has heard the question, and it’s really irritating to hear answers to questions you haven’t heard: “Yes, and I would say twice as much! But don’t ever try to manage that on your own!” (Cue uproarious laughter.) See how irritating that is?
So paraphrase the question back. That allows you some time to think of an answer, and it allows you to check to make sure that you’ve heard the question correctly. “So what I hear you saying is that you wonder why you’ve never found any Xs or Zs in your alphabet soup, is that right?”
More subtly, paraphrasing allows you to highlight one or two key points you actually want to answer if the question is multi-part or complicated, or full of points you don’t want to answer. And it allows you to retake control of an agenda when the questioner tries to take it away.
What if my worry is that people won’t ask questions? How do I make sure they do?
The classic mistake speakers make when they ask for questions is that they wait approximately 1.3 nanoseconds for a response. Hearing none, they panic, decide they have failed, and go on talking. The message that sends is that the speaker doesn’t really want questions.
If you ask for questions, you must wait, giving people time to wake up, decide they have questions, formulate them, and then work up the nerve to raise their hands or walk to the microphone. How long does that take? Studies show it takes about 6 seconds. Seriously. So, if it helps, count one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, and so on until you get to six. You’ll get questions.
My problem is too many questions. How do I get people to stop?
Here’s a nifty little trick. Works every time. If you want more questions, finish your answer to the previous one and then say, “What else?” That prompts more questions. To cut off questioning, simply say, “Anything else?” That will ensure that you get, at most, one more question. Guaranteed.
What do I do with questions that are off topic without appearing rude and refusing to answer them? Especially if they come in the middle of the talk like you tell me to encourage?
So you’re in the middle of your speech, and somebody in the 3rd row raises a hand and asks a question that, if you answer it, will take you a little off subject and maybe even put finishing on time in jeopardy. What do you do?
Start by remembering why you’re there to give a speech. Not to hear yourself talk. You could give a speech in the privacy of your own bathroom for that. The point of public speaking is to communicate with a group of people. So you haven’t succeeded in that endeavor unless someone has heard and understood you.
The audience is thus all-important. And when you think of it like that, why wouldn’t you take the time to answer the question?
So don’t worry so much about your agenda. Do worry about how the speech is coming across, and what the audience is getting out of it. If someone asks a question, in the middle of your talk, answer it. Insisting on holding questions until the end is just ego, pure and simple. Or a lack of preparation. You should know your speech and your content so thoroughly that you can easily adjust on the fly to take into account your audience’s feedback.
That said, you do have the right to sort through the questions and pass on the rude, the irrelevant, and the idiotic. But never let on that you think a question is idiotic. Just deal with it quickly and painlessly and move on.
Back in my teaching days at Princeton University, I was showing a videotape of Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech as an example of great rhetoric, brilliantly delivered. The discussion moved on to Patrick Henry’s Give me liberty or give me death speech. A student raised his hand and asked, “Do you have any videotape of Patrick Henry?”
For a split second, I honestly didn’t know what to say. The guffaws of fellow students quickly tipped the hapless junior off, and he blushed bright red as he realized his error. We moved on. That student probably got a lifetime’s education in a couple of seconds right then and there.
There are stupid questions, and you don’t have to answer them all. But you are there for the audience, and mostly it’s your job to respect their reactions to your talk and respond accordingly. In the end, questions are the audience’s way of completing the communications loop, and so they’re to be listened to for clues as to how well your attempts at communication are working, they’re to be responded to with sincerity and respect, and in the end, they’re to be treasured.