Answering Questions Without Losing Control of Your Time
Have you ever seen a speaker run out of time because he or she spent too much time answering very basic or very advanced questions that were irrelevant to most of the audience?
For example, a few years ago, I attended a presentation on using LinkedIn. The program description promised an overview plus a few specific steps to improve success using LinkedIn. The speaker got about ten minutes into her presentation to an audience of more than one hundred, when she was interrupted by a few people who asked very specific questions.
She answered each question thoroughly, but the problem was that most of the questions were either irrelevant to the rest of the audience (for example, "what do I do when I get this error when I try to log into my account?") or too advanced ("can you walk us through the specific steps to create and moderate groups?") or took up too much time.
With less than ten minutes to go before the end of her time limit, she had only made it through one third of her presentation and handouts. I spoke with many people afterwards who were frustrated and disappointed by how she had let the presentation get out of control without delivering on what she had promised.
While questions usually signal that the questioner is interested in what you have to say, you also have an obligation to cover the material that the audience expected, based on the description of your presentation or how it was advertised. And especially with a large audience, not all questions are relevant enough to everyone else to make it worthwhile for you to spend time away from your planned presentation.
Here are five strategies to ensure that those very specific or largely irrelevant questions don't take up all of your presentation time:
1. In the description about your presentation, set the expectations as to the level that you will focus on – beginner, intermediate, advanced – and then stick to it. Remember that you are in control of the presentation and timing and it usually can't get out of control without your involvement.
2. At the start of the presentation, let the audience know if, how and when you will handle questions.
3. If the situation allows, ask people to write their questions on index cards or sticky notes during your presentation, then collect and review them and choose some that are most relevant to answer.
4. When someone asks a question, request that they save it to ask again near the end of your presentation, if you haven't answered it in the course of your regular material.
5. Don't be afraid to NOT answer the question – explain that your answer might be too specific or not applicable to enough other people in the audience and request that the person take the question "off-line," by asking you one-on-one during a break or after your presentation.
While it's good to be responsive to questions, you also have to avoid letting them derail you from covering your message within the time limit.
Gilda Bonanno is a speaker, trainer and coach who helps people from all walks of life improve their communication and presentation skills.
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