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How to Handle Questions During a Presentation

Do you prefer to take questions at the end of your public speaking presentation but aren't sure how to politely request this of your audience?  Lisa B. Marshall explains how to control the questions from audience members.

By
Lisa B. Marshall,
January 5, 2016

Here’s a recent email that I received from a reader of The Public Speaker:

Dear Public Speaker,

I need help from a Professional. When I do a presentation some people disrupt the presentation with questions and the whole presentation loses it’s meaning. Therefore before a presentation I want tell to my audience, “Please don’t interrupt me," but in a more polite way. I want be strict but without insulting. Could you help me?

Thank you in advance.

Jozef P. 

Dear Jozef P.  

One advantage of being the speaker is that you get to control the flow of the presentation. This means that if you don’t want people to ask you questions while you are speaking, then you can do that. Or on the opposite side of the spectrum, if you prefer to have a more interactive format, you can instruct the audience to ask you questions along the way. 

If You Want Interraction

I love interaction and prefer to have the audience interrupt me. I believe it makes for a much more interesting presentation. With the interaction, it’s not just me speaking the entire time; plus, it puts the needs of the audience first. 

In fact, I take extra steps to ensure the audience will interrupt and ask question. When I want interraction I insert a slide into my presentation inviting people to ask questions along the way. It’s a very simple zen-like slide that says in big block print on a plain black background, “Please interrupt me!” I find that if I don’t include the slide, fewer people will ask questions; the slides gives them permission to jump in and participate. 

I do recognize that handling questions along the way is an advanced speaking skill. You have to know your material really well to know when you can take questions and how long you can devote to answers. You also have to know how to shut down questions that are out of the scope of the presentation or postpone a response if you are going to talk about that topic later in your presentation. You also need to know how to seamlessly cut out material on the fly should the questions run longer than you expected. (BTW, I teach those skills in my workshops and online courses for those that prefer a more interactive presentation).  

If You Don't Want Interraction

And yes, I realize that you are asking the opposite question; you would prefer not to take questions until the end of your presentation. All you need to do is communicate that to your audience, which I can tell from your question, you already understood. Your main question was how to make the request polite. It's easy. In order to make your request polite, you tell them what you WILL do as opposed to what you WON’T do. Towards the beginning of your talk you can say something like, “As I move through the presentation, I encourage you to write down your questions as they occur to you. Then, at the end of the talk, I'll be happy to address anything I didn’t cover." Or you can say, “I’ve left time at the end of my presentation to answer any questions you might have. I want to be sure I’m answering your specific questions and I also want to be sure I can cover all the planned material. Again, I'll take all of your questions at the very end."

That usually works. However, if you begin and someone does interrupt along the way, you’ve really got to answer the question or you risk decreasing his or her impression of your competence. My suggestion is to say something such as, ‘Well, the short answer to your question is X (this should be a very brief one sentence response), and if I haven't fully answered your question by the end of the talk, just ask me again at the end."

Ultimately as the speaker you have tremendous control on how to handle the question and answer period. In most cases, as long as you set the expectations up front, your audience members will respect your instructions.  

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