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Answer with Tact and Skill

The questions have been sorted out. The next key is how they get answered.

  • Talk to the whole audience, not just the questioner. This is a common mistake. People don't like to be left out. Eye contact is important to maintaining control and not letting side discussions develop. It may also be more important that someone other than the questioner hear the answer to the question.

  • Answer positively, without apology. Saying, "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot to cover that," is immaterial, time-consuming, and self-deprecating.

  • Be careful with humor, sarcasm, criticism, or arrogance. You can make an enemy for life by making a "witty" answer to the wrong person. Innuendoes about the questioner's motivation or intelligence generally backfire. Even if the questioner's manner is negative, resist the urge to reply in kind. While you may succeed in "putting down" the questioner, you may lose other key people.

  • Hold your temper. Often the intelligence section of the brain gets short-circuited when temper flares. Losing control can act as bait for an audience that doesn't think much of your ideas anyway.

  • Let your sense of humor show. Speakers sometimes lose points by not loosening up and enjoying the humor that often is a part of Q&A. Humor can be an effective vehicle for breaking down barriers between presenter and audience.

  • Expand the answer when appropriate. Elaborating may give the audience time to formulate another question on the same topic. A quick "no" may be the correct answer, but if perceived as abrupt, it may cut off further communication.

  • Yet, don't get carried away with your answer. Mark Twain is reported to have observed about a rambling answer to a straight-forward question, "We just heard a lot more about penguins than we really wanted to know." You may have answered the question with your first statement, then led them into a progressively deeper state of boredom with your next dozen. (At a large conference the keynote speaker bungled the Q&A badly, in one case rambling on for twelve minutes about a question most had never even heard.)

  • Don't be afraid to say "I don't know. " You may want to acknowledge that you really should know, or have the right person there who does know. Let the questioner know you will get the answer.

  • Don't be afraid to defer some questions. Depending on the situation, ask to defer a question that requires a lengthy answer or that will take up more time than it's worth. It's often wise to give a capsule version of the answer and then offer to discuss it more fully later.

  • Let the audience give you valuable input and support. They can be a valuable resource, helping you out of sticky spots by providing information or perspectives you may be lacking (and might find valuable). Be careful not to put people on the spot, however.

  • Measure feedback and test for the quality of your answer. How is your answer being received? Is the questioner obviously attempting to interrupt or shaking his head in disagreement? Has the question been answered satisfactorily?

  • Maintain perspective. Keep your eye on the goal and the clock. You want to let the dialogue flow freely but productively: You also want to achieve specific goals with this presentation. Questions that are excessive, of marginal usefulness, or that require detailed answers, can sidetrack from the main goals of the presentation.



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