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Any Questions? February 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I do a lot of public speaking.  I am that rare person that enjoys public speaking.  I get energized by being in front of people, and there is nothing more rewarding than a captive receptive audience.

For me, the only unpleasant part of the experience is at the end, when that last slide appears: “Any Questions?”  At this point, the opportunity for public embarrassment climbs exponentially.

The worst thing that can happen is… nothing.  No questions, no feedback, just crickets and uncomfortable rustling in the audience.  We’ve all been in these audiences, immersed in the palpable relief that the presenter has finally finished speaking.  Initial relief that questions will not prolong the affair is replaced with awkward embarrassment for the speaker, who wraps things up with a lame joke and heads off-stage, fighting back tears.  Usually, concern for the speaker’s feeling is not so great that anyone will offer a “pity question” to break the silence. We all just look away and develop a sudden great need to check our email.

It’s almost equally bad to get too many questions.  I don’t care how great a speaker you are, the audience will only tolerate four or five questions before restlessness sets in.  I can guarantee that even after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the audience would have been staring daggers at whoever asked a sixth question.  You’ve done it: the speaker has answered a few questions, you want to get out of there, and the request goes out: “Any other questions?”  Everyone starts darting glances at each other, daring some insensitive clod to pose another query.  When they do, you can hear the air go out of the room as everyone else gives a quiet groan.

My personal favorite is the unintelligible question.  A person may have a thick accent or may be soft-spoken, but for whatever reason the speaker cannot understand the question.  I’ve been here many times, desperately trying to lip-read from 35 feet away as an audience member takes a third crack at explaining their question.  And it’s never a quick question.  Oh, no.  It has a two minute set-up and three parts to it, and you lost track of the question a half-sentence in.  The best answer? “That’s a great question, but is probably better handled offline.  Can we talk afterwards?”

In reality, we all have a responsibility to make the Q&A successful.  The presentation is a solo act, but the questions and answers are a duet. Whether speaking or listening, be ready to hold up your end of the act, either with short, effective questions or direct, helpful answers.  Everyone gets to go home on time, with a minimum of embarrassment.

Any questions?

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Comments»

1. Steve Sparano - February 6, 2009

One question from the back here…

The two-minute set-up and trying to lipread from 35 feet away was hilarious. I laughed out loud reading this post.

To close, I’ve found including an open invite to meet anyone with questions afterward in the lobby/bar/reception helps. It gives the shy audience member a chance to ask their questions. I’ve found that in the post-presentation setting there are usually better discussions since you’ve got more time to answer the question. Thanks.

2. Chuck Musciano - February 6, 2009

Good advice, Steve. I enjoy the after-session Q&A, since you do get time to answer in more depth, and you usually get a conversation going with multiple people, which is always useful.

Glad I could brighten your day…

3. Marc Sirkin - February 6, 2009

Great post as always Chuck. I too enjoy public speaking and have had the exact same experiences with questions both good and bad.


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