Unless you are giving a keynote address at a dinner or are one of a rotation of brief speakers at a convention, the odds are you will be asked to answer audience questions. At a seminar, where you may be talking for twenty to ninety minutes, you will have the chance either right after you speak or at the end of the session. On the other hand, if you are talking to a small group at a business meeting, it may be expected that you take questions before moving on to each next topic. If you are teaching an all-day seminar, you will need to let the audience speak up after each segment. Whatever the format is, it needs to be agreed on in advance with your host, who should help you manage the audience.
There are three keys to making it likely that everyone will stick to the structure. First, have the host let everyone know what it is before you start, giving it the official stamp of approval. Second, she should tell the audience to write down their questions as they come to mind so they do not forget and are not distracted by trying to remember and listen at the same time. This can help ensure there will actually be questions at the end. Third, if there are people who interrupt at an inappropriate time, the host should remind listeners of the plan. If you are on your own, you have to take care of this yourself. Smile when you lay down the rules and enforce them. Explain that one reason you want questions saved until the end is that your presentation will answer most of them. Of course, interruptions can also break the rhythm of your speech and cause you to forget your next point.
Should you take written questions?
Written questions may be necessary if the audience is too large or a moderator wants to select the best questions to divide up among panelists, for example. This method does, however, stifle impromptu questions and is a less lively process.
Ideally, the host or panel moderator will pick those who get to ask questions, so you do not get blamed for anyone who is not called on. In some situations, audience members will just come up to a microphone in the aisle. If you have control over who gets to ask, choose individuals from each area of the room. You do not have to do this in a rigid rotation; if someone seems especially eager to talk, waving his hand, it is okay to let him speak up before moving to the next section of the room. If someone has a second question, ask her to wait until others have had their first chance.
Always repeat the question, in case others in the room could not hear it and for the benefit of those who may buy the recording. If the question was put in a rambling or unclear way, restate it to be sure you understand what they are asking. If the question was hostile, rephrase it so that it will fit better with the answer you are about to give. “Why do you have the worst environmental record in the nation?” becomes “You want to know what we are doing to show our concern for the environment,” and then acknowledge mistakes and focus on new initiatives.
If someone asks about something that was covered in the speech, there is no need to ask why she was not paying attention. You can just say, “To refresh everyone's memory about this issue, let me summarize the essence of what we discussed earlier” or click on a slide that provides the information for anyone who did not see it the first time.
Watch the time to end the session, since some may want to leave to attend another panel and may be embarrassed to get up before your segment is over. Or they may need to go home. In any event, the audience for the next program will want to come into the room. Close to the end of your session, try to end on a positive note with a solid answer and then invite everyone else to talk with you afterward or to give you his card for an e-mail exchange. Do not wait until you pick the very last hand that is up to announce that this will be the last question — it might be an embarrassing one.
Keep the responses brief so that as many people as possible can ask questions. Many Q&A sessions have to end before even a small number have had a chance to participate.