Public Speaking Problem: Too Many Questions (From One Person)!

by drjim on September 17, 2008

Too Many Questions From One Person Can Ruin A Speech

Too Many Questions From One Person Can Ruin A Speech

As though speaking in public was not difficult enough! Just about every technical presentation ends up with the obligatory “Question & Answers” opportunity for the audience at the end of the speech. There are actually three ways your presentation can go at this point in time: (1) nobody asks any questions – sorta embarrassing, but you can live with this as you quickly wrap up and sit down, (2) people ask good questions and you provide good answers – the perfect scenario, (3) some jerk starts asking a whole bunch of questions and just won’t give up. Let’s spend some time discussing what to do about this last scenario.

The eternal questioner (EC) is one of the strange creatures that lives in the land of public speaking. A close relative to the heckler, the EC is in love with themselves – especially the sound of their own voice. Experience has shown that the EC is most likely to be found attending your more informal speaking events: team meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc. He/she will generally avoid the big presentations to Senior Management because there is a good chance someone would shoot him/her down at those meetings.

Why does the EC do this? There are many reasons, but the best ones that I can come up with are as follows. The first is that the EC has a story that they want to tell. It really doesn’t matter what your presentation is about, they are going to use your Q&A time to tell their story. The other reason is that they have a whole series of ideas that are just jumping around in their head and they want to spill them out for everyone to see. It really doesn’t matter what their motivation is, you’re left with a problem on your hands.

How can you deal with an EC? When you encounter an EC the worst thing that you can do is nothing. Your audience is quickly seeing your presentation go from great to bad and if you don’t step in, then you’ll have to live with their final analysis forever. Here are four steps that you can take to deal with an EC:

  1. Lose the Anger: You need to realize that the EC is not doing this because you are you. Instead, you’ve got to realize that the EC does this to everyone – it’s not personal. What this means is that the worst thing that you can do is to get angry. Don’t – realize that it’s just a distraction and lose the anger.
  2. Play To Your Audience: When the EC reaches a stopping point (or takes a breath!), you need to say something that will show your audience that that you are willing to treat everyone with respect. A phrase such as “Good point, let’s talk about it afterwords.” would work. Note that this probably won’t shut the EC up, but it will win you points with the rest of the audience.
  3. Realize That Everybody’s Got ‘Em: Once again, it’s not personal. Some of the greatest communicators of our time such as Jack Welsh, Suzie, Orman, Steve Jobs, etc. have had to deal with ECs. You are not alone!
  4. Make Sure That You Have A Wingman: In order to head events like this off at the pass, it’s always a good idea to coordinate with whomever is running the meeting and have them agree to help you out if you encounter an EC. Let them play the “heavy” once the EC starts to hit his/her stride. Have the organizer step in and tell the EC to sit down and give other audience members a chance to ask their questions. This way you still have the respect and admiration of the audience.

Have you ever been in a meeting where an EC started asking questions? How long did they go on for? Did anyone try to step in and get them to stop? Where they successful? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathie Davis June 20, 2009 at 10:07 am

I had this happen just the other night. Boy I wish I had read this first! The wingman idea is great and I will use that in the future.

In this case, I was fortunate to have plenty of other questions, so I quit calling on the EC. At one point he started to speak without being called on-VERY rude-but I showed him the hand-and he became quiet.

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Dr. Jim Anderson June 21, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Kathie: wow – congratulations on successfully handling what I think is one of the more difficult challenges in giving a live speech. It’s all too easy in the moment to blow up at the person who is causing you this problem. Keeping your cool, solving the problem, and moving on for your audience is the mark of a true professional. Good job!

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