The first articles in this series contained advice for presenters on (1) answering audience questions and (2) answering “difficult” questions, like ones from an audience member trying to embarrass the presenter. This month we will look at a powerful tool presenters can use to improve presentation quality, especially in some special situations: Requiring audience members to submit all questions in writing.
A downloadable copy of a sample question form modeled after one used by the Pennsylvania Bar Institute (the CLE arm of the Pennsylvania Bar Association) is available here: Question form for Downloading. I learned about the benefits of question forms from several programs I did for them years ago. I have used them ever since.
Some speakers might like audience question forms because they enable the speaker to avoid unwelcome subjects. In some situations, this might be appropriate. It’s not the way I use question forms. I normally volunteer to take additional questions from the floor as well. I also usually tell the audience that I will distribute answers to all remaining unanswered questions after the conference. I still answer all questions, but in a more effective way, benefitting the audience.
Why Use Question Forms?
Facilitating more concise and useful answers. Rambling, disjointed answers are one of the most annoying presentation flaws. The use of question forms allows the presenter (or panelists) time to think about their answers.
Helping keep the presentation on track. Audience members sometimes use questions to advance personal agendas. The use of question forms gives the speaker (or moderator, if a panel) better control over the situation, one of the topics discussed in Presenter’s Guide Series, Part II – Dealing With Difficult Questions, the previous article in this series.
Prioritizing the best questions. Using question forms is more democratic. The audience members with the most instructive questions may not be the most assertive in getting the moderator’s attention. Over two decades of using this technique has convinced me that written questions tend to be more thoughtful and usually more helpful to other members of the audience.
Helping document key ideas. Especially if I will be revisiting this topic in a future class or article,, I find it invaluable to keep a record of the audience’s concerns. The questions frequently stimulate my thinking on the topic, causing me to add modules to future training programs or use the ideas in other ways. Many of the best ideas I’ve used in writing books and magazine articles (many of which made their way into my favorite legal journal, LLRX.com) over a quarter century were prompted by questions asked during various seminars.
When (And When Not) To Use Question Forms
- In difficult situations where you believe you (or a panel) may be overwhelmed by many questions.
- Any time you want to reduce stress on yourself (or a panel) by gaining a little extra time to think about your answers.
- Any time you want to provide the audience a better experience, by giving them more complete and thoughtful answers.
When Question Forms Won’t Help
If the audience is small, it may be difficult to get audiences to comply with the written-questions-only rule.
Optional or Mandatory?
Should you answer only questions submitted on written forms? In large groups or where there is heavy audience interest in the topic, this may be the best way.
Of course, the best way to answer post-conference questions is via a website, blog or social media feed that you control and want to expose to audiences. Since efficiency is important to me I love the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
Make sure you tell the audience at the beginning and conclusion of your presentation, as well as in any handouts or slideshows you use, exactly how to access the site you are trying to boost. This approach has the significant advantage of documenting the information, thus enabling you to use it later for various purposes.
Editor’s Note: Please see also these recent related articles by Jerry Lawson – Handling Questions: A Presenter’s Guide and Presenter’s Guide Series, Part II – Dealing With Difficult Questions.