Richard John probes the audience’s ability to answer for itself.
I’m sure you’ve all been at a conference where the speaker asks for questions, and is met by the silence of the grave, with just a glimpse of tumbleweed rolling past. Have you ever wondered what is going on there?
Well, on a presentation skills course I was running recently, the client requested I add in a section on dealing with questions at conferences and client meetings. So, always happy to oblige, I asked the delegates to each come up with the worst question they could imagine being asked; after all, this was a safe environment and a great chance to practice.
Interestingly, none of the questions were that difficult, and we were able to develop all sorts of slick, stylish and audience-winning answers. That led me to ask the group why they thought an audience might ask them questions. Their responses were interesting; the assumption is a question is asked for clarity, for a greater depth of knowledge, to elicit more understanding on the topic. Well, true enough; however, it’s worth thinking about all the other reasons behind questions.
For example, it might be that the audience doesn’t have any questions on your presentation; but, as a gesture of appreciation, and to acknowledge the effort you’ve put in, someone may feel they should put up their hand. It’s nothing more than an attempt to make you feel better (and them less guilty!) However, I might also ask you a question because my boss is in the audience, and I want to show them that I understand what you’ve said; I might even try and make the question unfairly complex because I’m showing off. In that situation, any answer you give is, frankly, irrelevant.
Of course, there are also those who ask such tedious and lengthy questions that you quickly realise you’re in the process of being hijacked by someone who feels they should be making the presentation, not you, and who have effectively ‘stolen your microphone’.
Perhaps your presentation is recommending my company adopts a course of action that flies in the face of what I believe; or I can sense the audience is tempted to buy your product, whereas I’ve been recommending a competitor’s services. You getting the sale might be seen as a criticism of my decision, so expect some challenging questions as I defend my corner.
And let’s end with a positive thought; as any interviewee will tell you, the toughest interviews are usually the ones that lead to a job offer. Hard questions from the audience may well be a sign that they can’t believe what a great offer you’re making, and they are simply checking to see if it’s as good as it sounds.
As James Thurber, who wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty once said, “It’s far better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
This was first published in the June issue of CN. Any comments? Email Zoe Vernor