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Part 2 - Question-and-Answer Sessions

Chapter 13
Six Steps to More Effective Q & A Sessions

This chapter does not offer any silver bullets to generate successful exchanges with audiences. They don’t exist. Instead, what I offer are some basic rules of thumb, which have proved effective in conducting question and answer sessions. These simple procedures will, if you follow them, help you meet tough questions head on. They’ll help you cope with aggressive audience members. They’ll help you stay in command of the speaking situation.1

Step 1

Be prepared. As we discussed earlier, you will find it absolutely essential to assemble a list of potential questions, and a corresponding base of facts to use in formulating your responses. Using the techniques described in this chapter, the first step is to practice answering the questions you have isolated. These techniques must be practiced to become a working part of your podium skills. Always remember to keep the audience in mind during every rehearsal; although your facts don’t change for different audiences, the way you present them does.

Step 2

You have just completed your prepared remarks and have invited audience questions. The first questioner raises his/her hand. You acknowledge the questioner. The question is now being asked.

You need to listen. Listen carefully for vocal inflection; watch for body language, the audience’s reaction to the questioner and to the question; look for any other clues that might help you understand the question and “where the questioner is coming from.”

It’s interesting how speakers respond to the one or two questions that make them feel most vulnerable. They don’t want these questions to be asked – ever. The moment someone from the audience begins to ask a question even remotely related, some speakers assume the worst has happened: absolute catastrophe. The speaker stops listening – blocks out all responses – and begins formulating answers to the wrong (the worst-case) question. This type of defensive behavior can trick you into opening the very can of worms you most desperately want to avoid. And listening – listening carefully – is the best defense against this deadly defensiveness.

Look alert and be alert, both physically and mentally. Give physical signals (eye contact, facial expressions) that show you are genuinely interested in the questioner’s concern. Concentrate directly on the question.

Be conscious of your own body language. I’ve seen many speakers display defensive body language while a question is being asked. Shifty or rolling eyes, steps backward, or crossed arms while the question is being asked signal the audience nonverbally that you are uncomfortable with the question. This “Gotcha!” body language can be seen frequently on investigative television news show, such as “60 Minutes.” The interviewee is under close camera scrutiny while an interrogator pummels him/her with tough, pointed questions. The viewing audience can tell fairly easily when the interviewee is caught in a tight spot – or when he/she is lying.

Two Important Items of Form

1.Upon completing your prepared remarks, and after listening to your first question, you may feel a strong temptation to prepare for your departure from the podium. This is not, nevertheless, a wise time to reorganize your notes, repackage your props, or disassemble your slide projector. Give your audience your attention and your respect during the Q & A session; you expected no less during your speech.

2.Once you open the meeting for questions from the floor, several hands may go up simultaneously. Try not to point directly at people with your hand in choosing the questioners. Direct eye contact and a simple “yes” (with a smile) will usually work. Finger pointing is awkward, and it is impolite. If you must point, use your open hand with your palm upward, instead of fingers, pens, or pencils.

Step 3

A question has been asked. You must be certain that you understand it before attempting to answer. Clarify the question when necessary. One of the following formulas may help:

  1. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the question. Could you help me out?”
  2. “What do you mean when you say (________)?”
  3. “Could you be more specific?”

Only use these if you are genuinely stumped by the true meaning of the question – not as a time-consuming device.

In clarifying, be careful not to relinquish the floor to an adversary in the audience whose real motivation is to give an opposing speech. It’s usually unwise to ask someone to clarify a question if you suspect he/she is hostile toward you or your position. Attempt to answer it without eliciting further remarks from your adversary. Allowing yourself to lose the floor can let the situation quickly deteriorate into a shouting match.

Avoid one-on-one confrontations; they take time only at the expense of the rest of the audience. It’s unfair for one individual who has an axe to grind to monopolize the Q & A session – especially when that person wants to discuss a strictly personal problem that may be of no interest to the rest of the group. Find this person’s question, then break eye contact, and answer the question to the entire audience. Then quickly seek out another questioner – from the opposite side of the room. If the first questioner persists in trying to dominate your time, look directly at him/her, and say is a pleasant way, “Why don’t we give some others a chance to ask questions?” Then take a question elsewhere.

Yet another option is to tell the persistent questioner that because his/her concern is “unique to you, how about if we get together after the meeting and see if we can (_______).” The idea here is to get the questioner to wait until after the meeting, when you will provide an individualized answer. The rest of the audience will be on your side, and, in most cases, will be pleased that you were able to relieve them of this over-zealous person.

In large auditoriums there is another important reason for clarifying questions: to insure that everyone has heard the question before you provide your answer. Remember that the audience member usually hasn’t had the benefit of the microphone to help others hear him/her. It’s annoying (and, of course, uninformative) to be seated in the back of the room where you can only hear answers – when the questions were completely or partially inaudible. Listen attentively to the individual’s question, then break eye contact, and turn to the audience as a whole. Make it everyone’s question by saying, “The question has to do with (_________),” or “the question is (______).” Make each question the entire audience’s concern, and answer it directly to everyone. Avoid the temptation to answer questions to one individual – while ignoring all the others.

Two things to remember while repeating or
Restating questions for full audience benefit.

  1. Do not repeat any language that you find personally offensive, or that you would otherwise not use. Don’t let the questioner, in other words, put words in your mouth.

  2. It is highly unethical to evade questions or to deliberately change their meaning, but it is permissible to change the tone, especially if the language is offensive. When restating questions for the full audience, it’s allowable to omit gory adjectives and other emotionally charged language. Filtering these out makes the question more rational and, perhaps, a bit easier to handle.

Questioner(hostile):“I’d like to know why those fat-cat executives at your company make such exorbitant salaries?”
Speaker: For those in the back, the question has to do with executive compensation at my company.”

Make certain that you understand the question and that everyone in the audience hears it before you answer. Avoid one-on-one encounters. Don’t let one aggressive person cross-examine you; give everyone an equal opportunity to ask you a question. Do not dodge any question or change the meaning of any question. Tone questions down when necessary (and when you can), but field all questions your listeners pose, if you can. This will substantially reinforce your overall credibility.

Step 4

You now face a question that everyone in the audience has heard; you restated it for their benefit. Answer it immediately with a short, concise, direct answer if you can. This is a practical application of the old adage, “Don’t tell people how the watch is made when all they want to know is the time.” The more direct and easy-to-understand your answer, the more forthright and “out front” will be your image with the audience.

The initial, quick response may be an incomplete answer; think of it as placing a headline on a newspaper article. It’s the theme line. All too often speakers give their audiences a history lesson when answering a question – and then summarize with a one-line statement. This one-line statement should have been delivered at the beginning of the answer, not at the end. This “one-liner” concept is widely used by effective speakers.2 The technique is to answer the question as swiftly and as succinctly as possible.

Always speak within the audience’s “frame of reference” (see part V). This boils down to speaking in terms the audience can easily understand: words they can relate to quickly. Don’t “snow” your audience with technical terms or with jargon that they cannot understand. This is one reason you should practice the Q & A session with the audience in mind.

Sometimes a question is raised that you don’t know the answer to; there is no way you can formulate a one-line reply. When you don’t know, it is always best to state simply, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.” Do not bluff; do not lie. You may get by once – even twice – but sooner or later you’ll get burned. Be truthful; never be afraid to admit that you don’t know. Take it upon yourself to get an answer back to the questioner as soon as you can. In the long run you and your reputation will come out ahead.

Step 5

Frequently a one-line response is enough to satisfy the audience. When necessary, provide support for your initial reply; give whatever pertinent information you deem essential to answer the question. But keep your answer as short as possible. If the audience wants to know more on the subject, they will ask. Too many speakers consider each question an opportunity to deliver another speech. Be brief.

As with the initial response, always speak within the listener’s frame of reference. Phrase your response with the audience in mind. Speak in personal terms whenever possible; avoid the corporate “we” … although “we” is far better than cold sounding statements like “company policy dictates” or “our official position is.” Many audiences are leery of the “we” and “they” cop-outs. The audience is there to hear from you. If you did a good job of establishing audience rapport during your speech, personal terms will be most effective during your Q & A session.

Step 6

Having completed your answer, it’s a good idea to check for audience feedback. Determine whether the audience is puzzled or confused by what you have said. If they are, clear up the confusion. It may be appropriate to ask the original questioner, “Does that answer your question?” If the questioner is satisfied, move on.

Beware. When dealing with a hostile questioner who has an axe to grind, it is not a good idea to invite additional comments regarding your answer. Don’t give the floor to your adversary.


These steps will help produce more effective answers while retaining control of the speaking situation.

  1. Preparation
  2. Listen
  3. Clarify
  4. Short, Concise, Direct Reply (“One Liner”)
  5. Support
  6. Feedback

Staying in control is important. You are deciding how many questions you will field, and at what speed. Don’t get caught up in a frenzy of excitement as thirty questioners compete for your attention. You set the pace. Be calm. Be in control. Audiences rarely follow tentative leaders. Be poised and confident, just as you were during your speech. Remember to use all the delivery skills discussed in Part I. Be animated and interesting. Keep your personality projection coming.

If your audience likes you, questions will appear where there were none before, and otherwise hostile questions will be asked in a more rational fashion.

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