Guide on the Side – Questions: Your Answer to Great Presentations

Previous Articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

Have you ever noticed that questions really add to some presentations while for others they seem to drag the energy down? Why? Preparation, thought and understanding of the purposes of questions make the difference. For instance, when a question and answer session is tacked on to a presentation as a pro forma afterthought, the audience senses that the presenter is not interested in interacting with them. As a result, the presenter is likely to encounter dead silence in response to the question “Any questions?” Now there are twenty minutes to fill and no plan, a very scary situation.

To get comfortable with Q&A sessions and questions generally, start weaving questions throughout your presentations. Learn to use them in the analysis, objectives, design, delivery and evaluation phases of your presentation design (see A Model for Training and Improving Performance). Questions are versatile and can serve many functions – get attention, stimulate interest, prompt feedback, make issues memorable, foster audience interaction, provoke thought.

Before the Presentation

  • As part of your analysis phase before the event, ask a few people representative of the audience for their questions on your topic. This can be done at a previous gathering of the group or via email. It is an excellent way to discover the audience’s range of knowledge, experience, vocabulary, values and concerns regarding your subject plus it allows you to structure your presentation to match the audience’s profile.
  • Anticipate the questions you might be asked. It is estimated that presenters can anticipate 80 to 90% of questions an audience will ask. Purposely leave out a pertinent detail, for instance deadline information. If you are using slides, hold back several and use them to answer certain kinds of anticipated questions. If no one asks those questions, you can comment “A question I frequently get asked is…” and show your slides.

Beginning the Presentation

  • Ask for questions at the beginning “what questions would you like me to cover in this presentation” Write the questions (or enlist a scribe to help) on a flip chart and cross them off as you cover each question. Strange as it may seem, the questions asked will almost always fall within a presenter’s prepared remarks but in a different sequence and expressed in different terms.
  • Start training sessions by reminding people “the only dumb question is the one you didn’t ask.” Illustrate this advice with sample questions to ask when applying the training in the real world, things like clarifying the scope, budget, and timeline.

During the Presentation

  • Promoting questions during a presentation is usually best with smaller groups and works well with reports, proposals or technical briefings where the audience needs to clarify details as the presentation unfolds. Remember to announce at the beginning that questions on the fly are ok. Answer questions succinctly so they don’t interrupt the flow of your ideas.

At the End of the Presentation

Recognize that there are really two closes to a presentation with a Q&A session. The first one is before taking questions.

“At this point, I want to get your opinion on this approach. This side of the room first.”

The second close is after the questions to summarize the main points of your presentation.

“As you can see from the questions and comments, this topic is perplexing and we don’t have all the answers but here is what you can do in the interim…”

Post Presentation

Sometimes the question period is so animated that questions cannot be covered in the time allotted. Announce post presentation ways to contact you and when and how you will respond. If you do this, convey a sincere openness to be contacted. Consider if there are ways to share these questions and answers with all members of the audience.

Strategies to Encourage Audience Questions

  • Announce the question session in an open ended, conversational way. “What has been your biggest headache in dealing with the network problem?”
  • Design questions into your content and delivery:
    Title: Why Knowledge Management?–and Why Now?
    Opening: What is the biggest problem facing researchers today?
    Content: Design the body of the presentation around four key questions.
    Ending: In light of these facts, can you afford not to act?
  • Ask a question, pause and then give the answer yourself.
  • Bring up questions you have been asked by other audiences.
  • Let the audience know up front there is a Q&A session, when and how long.
  • Provide a seating arrangement (see Room Setups for Presentations & Training) where the audience can see each other.
  • List questions in the presentation announcement or brochure
  • Provide a graffiti wall for the audience to write a question at any time. Start your Q&A session by answering these questions.
  • Pass out 3 x 5 cards for the audience to submit their questions.
    This is often used a public hearings and when the audience is large
    If the topic is controversial, duplicate questions can be combined, hostile questions don’t have to be answered.
  • Don’t ask for feedback and then start to pack up your laptop or your notes. This sends the clear signal that you are done and ready to split
  • Arrange for someone in the audience to ask the first question to start the ball rolling.
  • Ask yourself beforehand what questions you hope no one asks and then prepare to answer them.

Helpful Hints

  • Think of each question as having 3 parts
    Bridge (connection to your agenda)

    Question: How much does your system cost?
    Answer: $200,000.00
    Bridge: “However, I estimate the savings in personnel time to be triple that in 2 years.

  • If you don’t know the answer, admit it (At the beginning of your presentation, make clear your level of expertise, experience or point of view. This provides the foundation for responding “that’s out of my area” however do offer to find out and get back to the person.)
  • Repeat the question in a large group or arrange for microphones. Direct your answer to the entire audience not just the person asking the question.
  • Make sure you understand the question. Some people take a circuitous path to their real question.
  • Deflect personal, hostile or irrelevant questions with “see me after.”
  • Don’t let an interesting but tangential question trigger a whole new speech from you. Keep your answers short and to the point.
  • Allow time if you have announced there will be questions. Don’t let your presentation ramble on figuring the Q&A time is soft time to extend your presentation.
  • When the time allotted for questions is running out, announce one more question and suggest “see me after.”
  • Consider questions as a compliment to you and your presentation. Challenging ideas arouse thought and inquiry. Dull presentations make people head for the exit.
Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills