Part 2 - Question-and-Answer Sessions
Ironically, while many speakers worry in advance about surviving an expected attack of aggressive audience questions, an equal number report experiencing a sinking feeling when the actual audiences stared silently with glazed eyes after being invited to ask questions.
A few moments of silence that open a question-and-answer session can be the most awkward moments you will ever experience in the speaking situation. The unresponsive audience can, however, be dealt with effectively.
First of all, a large portion of the fault is yours if your audience is completely unresponsive Ė with no questions whatsoever. Such a situation can be a good clue that your presentation wasnít either stimulating or provocative. It may also mean that you may have intimidated or overwhelmed your listeners to the extent that they may be afraid to ask questions in what they see as a risk of seeming ignorant before the rest the audience. Whatever the cause of deadly silence, there are several ways to cope with it.
One seldom-used technique is simply to leave the podium and sit down. Assuming youíve made an effort, however unsuccessful, to generate audience questions, and that you have fairly covered your material during your speech, then itís senseless to continue what can become an ordeal.
Be aware of time limitations. If an audience is anxious to get on with other matters or to adjourn the meeting, donít fight it. Careful use of your allotted time can prevent this potentially embarrassing situation. Itís far better to give the audience a bit too little than too much. Leave Ďem a little hungry.
Assuming, however, that youíve intentionally left some important points for discussion during the question-and-answer session, and that youíve managed your time accordingly, it is appropriate for you to stimulate audience participation.
Informal surveys or ďvotingĒ questions are one good way to keep your presentation alive, and to get the audience involved. If the audience ignores your appeal for questions, ask them for a show of hands on a question that requires the majority to raise an arm. That can give you new information to discuss, while at the same time physically involving most of your audience. Many speakers report good success with this technique; it seems to break the ice. Many listeners have questions, but they donít want to be the first person to ask one. This technique gets everyone involved simultaneously.
In the event you donít get an immediate response from your audience, you may simply say, ďA question Iím frequently asked which may interest you is...Ē This method gives you additional points to cover while buying time for the listeners to formulate their own questions. Select a stimulating question of specific interest to your listeners Ė the more provocative, the better.
ďAs I see there are no questions, I would like to amplify a point I made earlier in my presentation.Ē This both buys time, and provides the opportunity to reinforce important points.
ďOn my way in this evening, Miss Jones, your program coordinator, asked me a question I thought would be of interest to everyone.Ē This ploy is superior to the above two techniques as it automatically makes the question an audience query, and not one youíve simply dreamed up for your own advantage. Your early arrival and a little casual mingling on your part before your speech will almost always produce a question or two suitable for this need.
Tease your audience with a list of topics, preferably somewhat controversial, that you hope will snag a listenerís interest. Simply ask for any questions about topics A, B, or C. The more controversial the subject, the more likely you are to get a question. Make certain, though, that youíre prepared to handle each item you offer as bait.
Conflict is a good stimulator. Making far-out statements or ludicrous remarks may arouse your unresponsive audience. Donít be insulting. Make certain the audience realizes that you were half kidding. Sometimes your outrageous remarks made in jest will be the only part of your presentation listeners will remember. Leave the audience with a clear understanding of your position on the issues in question.
Some speakers report good results with written audience questions. These questions are written out on 3x5 cards by audience members during the presentation, and submitted to the speaker or program moderator. When appearing before student groups, donít be surprised to find that some teachers may have asked students to prepare written questions prior to your arrival; it forces students to think about the topic at hand.
Written questions delivered to the speaker or moderator eliminate the potentially embarrassing requirement for an audience member to speak; it somewhat neutralizes the group. This is one method used to moderate potentially hostile audience members who would otherwise monopolize the question-and-answer session.
It also, however, distracts listener attention momentarily while writing out the question. The biggest disadvantage for the speaker is the lack of human contact. Youíre deprived of an opportunity to hear the question asked with full benefit of nonverbal emphasis, vocal inflection, and emotional state. Finally, it creates an air of formality to the presentation, which may, on occasion, retard your effort to build audience rapport.
In an effort to elicit questions, some speakers single out an individual and request that they pose a question. Extreme caution should be used when forcing a one-on-one encounter. You may have just selected a person with a speech impediment or an equally difficult problem Ė and exposed them unwillingly to full group scrutiny. One embarrassing experience of this type will cure you forever. Probe your audience with extreme care.
Punctuating a presentation with appropriate visual aids can continue to pay dividends during the question and answer session. Audiences have a tendency to ask questions about the visuals displayed before them. Introducing new visuals during summary remarks is an effective way to whet the audience appetite for more. Introducing new visuals during a dull question and answer session may give it new life, stimulating more audience participation.
Beware. Speakers who plant questions in their audiences take a great risk. The questions obviously planted can seriously damage your credibility in the audienceís eyes. Well-intentioned friends have an uncanny ability to botch their lines Ė and your cover. One of the other techniques will usually suffice to replace this one.
There is no substitute for spontaneity. Pick up on something that occurred during or immediately before your speech. Donít ignore your surroundings; be in tune with them and use them to your advantage. Rarely will you lose listener support by making astute observations.
Whatever route you choose, be nimble. Be creative. And be persistent in your effort to generate questions. Donít let the great opportunities afforded by audience question and answer sessions slip away for lack of effort on your part. Most veteran spokespersons consider these to be the most challenging and rewarding moments in public speaking.