This is the second article of two on how to handle Q and A.

In the first of these two posts, I talked about three simple ways to improve the odds that your Q and A session will succeed.  In this post, I conclude with some of the most commonly raise issues concerning Q and A.

How to handle a heckler

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?

Why does it work?  Because most hecklers are really doing so to get attention, and you’ve just given them attention.

What to say first when asked a question

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.

How to make sure someone in the audience asks a question

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.

How to tactfully end a Q and A session

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.

How to handle off-topic questions, or questions that come in the middle of your talk

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.

There are stupid questions, and you don’t have to answer them all.

It’s your agenda.

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.

I’m taking Thursday off in honor of that unique American holiday, Thanksgiving, and will resume my posting next week.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!





  1. Nick, I have a strategy that I use to handle Q&A that I really like.

    When I’m in discussion with planners and they bring up Q&A I usually waive them off and say it’s better if we don’t do it. I explain that I have a high energy speech and doing Q&A at the end means we finish my session with low energy.

    About 25 percent will insist on Q&A so in that case, I require that my talk be broken into two parts. The speech part has a distinct ending where I can take my bows and the audience feels the talk is finished. Then, somebody comes on stage to act as the Q&A moderator. It can be the person who introduced me or a journalist or an executive of the sponsor, but I need to coordinate with them prior. The moderator reintroduces me to the audience by referring back to something in my talk and then asks the first or first several questions.

    Then I work the audience questions as you’ve described. I leave it up to the moderator to end the Q&A so I never have to get into the weeds with looking at the time or worrying that there aren’t any more Qs.

    This strategy breaks my stage time into to very different segments. Often, if the agenda permits, I will request that the Q&A be done after a coffee break or after lunch or even the next day.

    One more thing, if the Q&A is for an extended time (more than 15 minutes), I change up the stage by requesting the organizers bring up some high stools for me and the moderator. This is a visual indication that the speech is over and we are going into Q&A.

    I really like this approach. It makes the speech a stand alone presentation followed by something else – the Q&A.


    1. Thanks, David — this is a great approach. I like the separation of speech and Q and A, because that allows you to keep the speech clear and powerful, the Q and A can have all the feel of improv, and the audience gets the best of both worlds.

    2. As an event MC I like to offer something similar to the moderator role you mentioned as part of my service. Or at the very least, listen intently so that I can have a question or two ready to get the ball rolling that I believe some audience members would want to ask, but may be reluctant to put their hand up.
      I don’t get to do many business events in my part of the world but it’s reassuring to get good info from seasoned professionals and know that I am on the right track.

  2. Thanks Nick – good topic! And, Thanks David for sharing your style. Reading your post Nick, I got the idea of saying, “That’s a multi-faceted question so come up to me afterwards and we can talk about it. Next.”

    1. Thanks, Donna — the Catch-22 is that we want to be responsive to the audience, and yet we want to provide them a great experience with the right kind of emotional arc. David’s approach, for those who can negotiate it, neatly accomplishes both. For those who can’t, taking Q and A at 20 minutes and 40 minutes (assuming an hour time-slot) is another good answer.

  3. Great post, Nick! I have found that for some audiences, simply asking, “Any questions?” is too vague. So I’ve been trying to be more specific, as in, “Does anyone have an example of how they’ve used this approach?” or “What do you see as the biggest roadblock in getting something like this done?” or “Why do you think this idea is uncomfortable for so many people we work with?” Etc.

    1. Thanks, Rob — you’re right. Specific questions are always best. Simple questions are better. And waiting after you’ve asked a question is best of all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.