Lesson 18 What Comes Next?

Well, you’ve done it—you’ve fnally delivered your speech, and it’s gone off without a hitch. You presented some stunning visual aids, made the audience laugh several times, made them stop and think seriously about your topic, and did it all with pizzazz. You conclude your thoughts with a compelling call to action, gather your notes, turn to leave the stage—and somebody raises a hand at the rear of the audience with a question. Uh oh. . . . You didn’t rehearse for that!

The fact is, however, that no speech is concluded until the audience’s questions are addressed. Yet, felding questions is actually a good exercise for any speaker for a number of reasons. First, it forces the speaker to think through his or her material more fully, trying to anticipate what the audience might ask. Second, it gives the speaker some valuable practice with impromptu speaking, since there is no way you can script your answer to an unknown question.




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Prepare in advance

Okay, I just said you can’t do this—but to some extent you can. That is, you don’t know in advance what ques- tions might be asked, but you can still make an edu- cated guess. Ask yourself what questions you would ask if you heard someone give your speech, and then pre- pare to answer those questions.

When you rehearsed in front of your live audi- ence, you asked them to hit you with some tough ques- tions at the end of your speech (at least, you should have!). Use those sample questions as springboards to brainstorm what questions you might be asked when you give your speech, and then fgure out what your answer would be.

Anticipating questions is a vital part of speech- making. In fact, it’s helpful to ask yourself from start to fnish what questions you might have to face, since that can also help you to craft a more comprehensive speech. Knowing the questions in advance is like get- ting your hands on a fnal exam before it’s given: You can spend time before the exam looking up the right answers, and then ace it when it’s given! This might be called cheating when it comes to schoolwork, but when it comes to public speaking, it’s called being prepared.

control the questions

You might think you have no control over what ques- tions your audience asks, but that’s not entirely true. You are the speaker, after all, which means that you are incharge,atleastinsomemeasure.Youcannotcontrol what the audience is thinking, but you can control the environment in which they ask questions.

For starters, reserve questions for the end of your speech. This is usually done by default, since most audi- ences understand this principle as basic etiquette. But you might have someone raise a hand while you’re speaking, so don’t be caught off guard. If that happens, pause and call upon the person with the question—it’s possible that he or she simply can’t hear you and wants

you to speak louder. If the person asks a question about your topic, politely request that the audience hold their questions for the end, assuring that person that you will begin your question and answer time with him or her.

Sometimes you might be faced with a person who dominates the question time: The moment you answer one question, the person has another. You can control this situation as well simply by looking for oth- ers who have questions. Say, “That’s another excellent question—I’ll come back to it in a moment. But frst, were there other questions?”

You can even control the atmosphere during the question time. Perhaps you’ve given a persuasive speech on a controversial topic, and some people in the audi- ence hold strong opinions in a different direction. You might fnd yourself faced with a hostile attitude from someone in the audience, and you don’t want to let that become the general atmosphere in the room.

You can defuse that hostility frst and foremost by not returning it! Rephrase a question that is worded in an accusatory manner; thank an angry questioner for having the honesty to express those views; fnd a point of agreement, such as saying that you share the questioner’s frustration on the topic and that you’re both working toward the same goal of fnding a solu- tion. In short, you can control hostility by replying to it with respect and patience.

Follow etiquette

This is actually an expansion on what we’ve just said about handling hostile questions: Treat everyone with courtesy. Your audience has treated you with courtesy by listening to your presentation and by holding ques- tions to the end; now return the favor by following the basic rules of question-and-answer etiquette.

First, listen to the entire question. Do not inter- rupt the questioner when you think you’ve got the gist of the question; allow him or her to fnish asking it. Frequently you’ll fnd that the actual question was not what you’d anticipated because the questioner was trying


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to fgure out exactly how to ask it. Once in a while, you might have an audience member who uses the ques- tion time to make a speech of his or her own—which is not following the practices of etiquette. Nevertheless, continue to be courteous; gently interrupt the ques- tioner’s impromptu speech by saying, “So I think the question you’re asking is. . . .”

Another point of etiquette is to help questioners who get stuck for words. This is a far more common situation than hostility: An audience member has a question, but just can’t seem to put it into satisfactory words. When the questioner begins to fumble for the right wording, help him or her out: “Yes, I think I understand what you’re saying. In other words, why does. . . .” You will be rewarded with a warm smile of satisfaction when you reword the person’s question and then answer it.

Etiquette also calls upon you as the speaker to make sure that everyone in the audience knows what question you’re answering. This is defnitely the most common situation you’ll face in question times: A person stands and asks a question, directed at you, spoken in a conversational voice—and the rest of the audience didn’t hear it. The solution is very simple: When the person is fnished asking the question, restate what he or she said for the entire audience before answering it.

Treat each questioner like an intelligent adult. In fact, you should communicate a sense of genuine inter- est in the person’s question. Do this by looking intently at the questioner, keeping your mind focused entirely upon the question. Don’t just look like you’re doing it; do it! It’s entirely possible that the question will be something you addressed clearly and painstakingly in your speech; answer it as though you had inadvertently omitted that information. Remember times when you may have done the same thing, and avoid making that person feel embarrassed.

In short, treat your audience with respect and courtesy. Say “please” and “thank you”; make eye con- tact; listen intently; treat the questioner and the ques- tion with dignity.

giving the right answer

When you prepared your speech, you did careful research; you took extensive notes; you organized your information carefully—and you did all these things for one reason: You wanted to be right! Wouldn’t it be a tragedy then, if after all that work, you completely undercut your speech by giving wrong answers? Yet you will be amazed at how easily that can be done.

The very frst rule in answering questions is this: Don’t guess! If someone asks you something that you don’t know, say so. It’s really very simple, and there’s no embarrassment or stigma attached at all. You were caught off guard, or the person asked about something beyond your expertise, and you don’t know the answer. You have not lost credibility; in fact, you have gained it, because many people would be tempted to try thinking on their feet, inventing an answer as they go along, hop- ing that they hit the target by the end. They won’t.

The next principle has been addressed in our pre- vious section, but it bears repeating: Treat every ques- tion with dignity. This means you might be asked a question that seems so pathetically self-evident that you don’t need to answer it. Answer it anyway, and do so as though you had omitted the answer in your speech, and you’re grateful for the chance to correct that omission.

Keep your answers brief. Remember that you have a time limit, and that limit includes the time spent answering questions. If you spent your entire time on your speech, you’re already going overtime while feld- ing questions—and this will defnitely breed resent- ment in some of your audience. Be as succinct as you can when answering questions, and tell the audience that you can give them more information afterwards if they’d like it.

Do not introduce new material when answering questions. The question time should reinforce your speech, not give you an opportunity to make another one. If a complete answer requires new information, say so, offering to discuss it further afterwards. Your audience will appreciate your sensitivity to time, and


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those who are interested will appreciate your availabil- ity to inform them further.

Finally, correct any inaccuracies in a question. Being polite does not mean being coerced into saying something that you didn’t mean. Perhaps a questioner misunderstood some portion of your speech: “When you said that blue is really yellow, what does that imply about green?” Of course, you didn’t actually say that; the questioner misheard or misconstrued. So begin your answer by correcting the misconception, and then move on to answer the underlying question if one remains: “I think what I said was that blue and yellow are both primary colors—at least, that’s what I’d intended to say. Green, of course, is a secondary color, so we can infer that. . . ”

Notice that you don’t accuse the questioner of deliberately misconstruing your speech. In fact, you offered to take some share of the blame in case you didn’t clearly expound on what you’d intended to say. This defuses any potential hostility while still making it clear that you did not say what the questioner claims you said.

invite the audience to answer

As a general rule, this approach is risky, because it implies that you are not a qualifed expert on your topic. But it’s far, far better than inventing an answer when you don’t know it! Sometimes you will want to say, “I’m not sure of the answer to that question, but if you’ll speak with me after I can arrange to get the information.”

On the other hand, the question may involve some information that you are confdent is known by others in the audience, at which point you can say, “I’m not sure, but I have no doubt that others here will know. Can anyone help us out on this?” This tactic, when used appropriately, shows the audience that you genuinely want to know more about your topic, and you are will- ing to admit that you don’t know everything.

opening and closing the question time

Your speech conclusion is frequently not the conclu- sion of your speech; your speech concludes when all the audience’s questions are answered (or as many as you have time to address). Nevertheless, your audience needs to have a clear sense that this is now the time when they can ask questions, and they also need to know when it’s time to get up and leave.

Open your question time clearly: “And now I’d like to open the foor to anyone who has a question.” This rewards the audience for observing etiquette by holding their questions to the end, and it primes the pump to get those questions fowing.

That said, however, you must be ready to face a few seconds of silence. Silence is like a death pall to a speech- giver; it’s empty air waiting to be flled with the sound of your voice. But this is not the case when felding ques- tions, because the air needs to be flled by the audience, not by you. Allow approximately ten seconds of silence to give people a chance to formulate their questions.

If the silence continues toward half a minute, it’s time for you to prime the pump yourself. You can get questions fowing by asking one: “Some of you may be wondering how my thoughts apply to the question of. . . .” Have this question planned before you begin speaking; that way it will be an intelligent question, and you’ll know the answer! If you face silence after answering your own question, it means that you did an excellent job presenting your information. It’s time to conclude.

“Well, if there are no questions, allow me to leave you with this thought.” Notice that you have done two things:Youhavetoldtheaudiencethatthespeechisover and it’s time to leave; and you have summarized the gist of your speech. Your concluding thought, however, must be brief! You’re putting your thoughts into a nutshell, encapsulating your entire speech in just one or two sen- tences. This gives your audience something to take home with them, and ends your speech on a strong note.


You will use this form of fnal conclusion whether you’ve had no questions or many. It brings the speech full circle, and ends with you in control as the expert on your topic. This may be an important tactic if you’ve

been faced with challenging questions, as it will remind the audience that you are credible even if you don’t know all the answers.