Fielding Questions

At the conclusion of an oral presentation it is normal for time to be set aside to allow members of the audience to ask questions of the speaker – to explain elaborate on or expand on a point - or to provide comments or criticisms.

This is an important part of a presentation which allows for a constructive dialogue to develop between the speaker and the audience. It also provides an opportunity for the speaker to obtain feedback from the audience and to ascertain how effectively the oral presentation has been in achieving its aims. (Often questions may be allowed during the course of the presentation. The audience should be advised at the beginning of the talk as to whether questions will be permitted during the presentation or if they should be kept to the end.) Practical constraints typically mean that a certain time is allowed for questions. Hence, even the most beleaguered speaker can be assured that question time will finish eventually!

Prepare for Question Time 

Part of your preparation for your oral presentation should involve preparing for the questions session. Your background reading needs to be sufficient to provide you with a broad enough knowledge to tackle the range of questions anticipated. For your rehearsals it is good practice to have family or friends listen to your talk and to fire practice questions at you to enable you to develop your skills in this area. You should also try to anticipate some of the questions you may receive – which often ask for elaboration on points mentioned during the talk or which may target relatively weak areas of your argument – and to develop answers for these in the event that they are asked.

Employ good practice

The following points are provided as a guide:

  • ensure that someone is in control of the question time – someone who will nominate who will ask a question and generally keep the session in order. If no session chair or MC is present then you as the speaker will need to take this responsibility
  • stay in the area where you made your presentation to take questions. Question time is a formal part of an oral presentation and must be treated as such
  • listen carefully to the question being asked and ensure that you understand it. Don't hesitate to ask the person to restate the question if you are not sure what they are asking. You may need to restate the question to the whole audience if you think that it may not have been heard or understood by everyone;
  • if the question is long then try to break it up into smaller bits and answer each in turn
  • address your answers to the whole audience, not just to the person who asked the question
  • always be succinct and polite in your replies. Even if you feel that you are being attacked, remain calm and courteous at all times – this will help to defuse potentially volatile situations and prevent matters from getting out of hand
  • if you do not know the answer to a question then don't be afraid to say: 'I don't know'. It is obvious when a speaker is trying to bluff their way through and this strategy serves no-one. You may want to throw such questions up to the audience to see if someone else can address it. Remember that the aim is to generate constructive dialogue and sharing difficult questions around can often lead to interesting insights being raised. In some circumstances the speaker may be able to take the question on notice and arrange to have an answer sent to the inquirer at some time after the presentation 
  •  ensure that as many questions are addressed from as many different members of the audience as possible during the time provided. Take action to prevent particular members of the audience from dominating the question time if this appears to be occurring. However, deal with all situations with courtesy and good humour