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This is part 5 of a multi-post series on public speaking

This post is about dealing with questions, and to be honest there isn’t much to share in this area. Nonetheless, I’ll cover some of the most common sense aspects of it.


The first question of course should be…should I allow questions?

My rule of thumb is yes except if keynotes. And even with keynotes there are exceptions to the rule. If it’s a non-technical keynote, then very rarely is there place for questions and most topics I talk about are probably better discussed one on one. As such, a better place to address these types of enquiries and comments is after the talk. If it’s a technical keynote, and if there is time after the talk then sure, a few questions are fine. However, never during the talk itself.

If it’s not a keynote, then I’m good with questions and I’m fine with people to ask it during the talk as opposed to piling it all up at the end. Ironically most conference organisers keep telling speakers that a session should be X minutes with Y minutes Q&A to end the session. I disagree for two reasons:

  1. If someone has a question which is not addressed, their mind may start to wander and as a consequence, they can get lost. This is even more so when it’s a technical talk and knowledge is built on as the session progresses.
  2. If someone has a question, you’re pretty certain that at least someone else has the same question. I can’t prove it scientifically but it’s happened to me so often that there’s a high probability it’s the case.

The flip side of it is that often someone’s question will be answered by yourself during the talk at some later point, and you’d save everyone the trouble by avoiding interruptions. However, it’s up to you to decide whether saying “we’ll get to that” is worth the balance of not allowing questions during your talk.

Repeat the question

Always repeat the question. It serves two main purposes:

  1. You understood correctly what you were being asked.
  2. If your talk is being recorded or live-streamed, those listening can know what was asked. Obvious isn’t it? Yet so often people forget to do this. Including myself.

I don’t know

Be honest. If you don’t know the answer, just say you don’t. Don’t try and invent something to look smart. If you make up an answer you’re not only misleading people but will also look silly if someone in the room (or those watching the recording) know the correct answer. Early on I was guilty of this. And I profoundly apologise.

If you do not know the answer, just tell them that you’ll follow-up later or even give the opportunity for someone else in the room to answer if they know. Remember, giving talks and teaching in general is one of the best ways to learn yourself.

As a reminder - when we covered dealing with nerves in the first part of this series, I said it’s very important to set expectations. If you’re a beginner on a topic, set the expectations. This comes in handy when answering questions too. Nobody will expect you to know everything.

If none of those approaches work for you, then you can do what I recently coined “Trump a question”.

Yes. That’s a joke.

Take things offline

If a question is derailing off-topic or the answer is way too long to respond then and there, give a brief answer and suggest to take it offline.

Ignore the trolls

Much like you should ignore trolls online, ignore them offline too. Unfortunately though that’s easier said than done. The only thing that will help you in dealing with trolls or people that aren’t necessarily trolls but selfish in terms of wanting to be center of attention or you only focusing on their questions, is experience.

Having said that, don’t be rude and try and tell them to take things offline. If they’re being insulting or aggressive, then by all means stop the session and ask for one of the organisers to intervene. But please do not engage in a back-and-forth to see who wins. It’s not something the audience enjoys watching.

Until next time.