How to run a question period

Many different kinds of events involve a presenter giving a speech, and often taking questions. Unfortunately, question periods are often a problem -- for both the presenter and the audience. Here are some thoughts on making it better.

Informal presentations

Sometimes presentations are informal, like at a local users' group, or speaking to co-workers. Questions might be asked during the main presentation, often in an interactive way, with back-and-forth between the speaker and the questioner. This works best with smaller audiences.

In these kinds of situations, it is acceptable and expected that questions will be for clarification. One of the main purposes of these talks is to teach the audience, so thorough understanding is an important goal.

That's why it is usually best to allow and encourage interruptions during your presentation. I try to make a point of mentioning this at the beginning of a talk. The audience might otherwise hold their questions until the end, and miss out on everything between when the question arose to the end. By making it clear that interruptions are okay, you give the audience permission to do so, and you'll often find that they take you up on the offer. This also leads to highly relevant questions. Everyone is on the same page, and the question is tightly related to what you were just talking about.

As a presenter, you might also include a few spots in your notes where you stop to check that the audience is following. This can often elicit useful questions.

Formal presentations

More formal events often involve a dedicated period at the end of the talk for questions, and might be coordinated by a moderator. This also includes large audiences, like large first-year undergraduate lectures. These kinds of presentations don't work well if everyone feels entitled to interrupt the speaker with their question, but I've seen even lecture halls of 500 students with questions in the middle work well. There is absolutely a question of balance. The speaker should inform the audience what that balance is.

When taking questions, you should announce that you will take questions, and then speak for a minute or two longer. You might repeat your conclusion, condensed even further, or suggest topics that might be interesting for the audience to ask about. For example, many speakers will gloss over some tangential topic, saying "We can come back to that later" or "Ask me about that if it interests you." Remind the audience what those were as an invitation to bring up those topics.

This also gives questioners a chance to think about what their best question is, and avoids the dreaded 30s of silence after "So! Who has a question." That silence is awkward for the presenter, who might be thinking they bored or lost the audience, as well as the for the audience who might be thinking they'd like to ask a question, but are suddenly put on the spot.

Rules for question period

You can also use that time to remind the audience how a question period works. This is especially useful if you have a moderator.

  • Questions should be high quality. Simply reminding the audience that there is a limited amount of time (specify how long) and that we want good questions will raise the quality significantly.
  • Questions are interrogatory sentences designed to elicit a meaningful response from the speaker. If the event is a panel discussion, every member of the panel should be able to respond to the question.
  • Questions should ideally have an answer that is interesting to a large part of the audience. The other people in the lecture hall are not there for you, so don't waste their time asking about something personal, or grinding an axe. If things get really tangential, the moderator should simply cut off the question or answer and move on to the next question.
  • Questions should be short -- no more than five sentences. If you reach the fourth sentence and haven't reached the question mark, then your fifth sentence must be "What do you think of that?" or "Can you tell us more about that?" or something similar.
  • You only get one comeback. This is not the debating society, you have asked for the speaker's answer to a question.

As a moderator, you should take a minute or two at the beginning of the question period to remind the audience of these things (it really only takes 90 seconds, honest, and you'll save time by getting shorter questions).

You should also consider finding your next questioner during the answer to the previous question. Just like the 2-minute warning that the question period is coming up, this allows the next questioner to reformulate their words before being put on the spot. Even a 30s head start can make a big difference. It also allows you to avoid potential questioners from vying for the next question, and delaying the actual question. "Me?" "Me?" "Who, her?" gets old within two seconds, so just avoid it altogether by doing it during the previous answer.

Finally, never take more than one question at a time. I've seen moderators try to do a "lightning round" of questions where they empty out the queue to get a bunch of questions on the floor, and ask the speaker or panel to respond to anything they feel like. It just doesn't work. Neither does taking multiple questions in succession, and then having the speaker answer them in succession. Now we're testing the speaker's memory about the questions, or they have to take notes. This also eliminates any possibility of follow-up questions, or allowing the audience craft questions that take into account the other questions or answers when asking. It's just a bad idea -- take one question at a time.

Written questions

I haven't addressed question periods where questions are written down on cards, and read out by the moderator yet.

I find the experience of listening to people read others' handwriting aloud to be painful. I feel embarrassed on behalf of the person who has to decipher some audience member's chicken scratch (remember, they were probably writing on their knee, hurriedly). Having all the questions come from the moderator can help the quality some, but I think something is lost by having an intermediary between the questioner and the speaker.

If you have useful advice for doing written questions, the comments section welcomes you.

tl;dr

These are some of my rules for formal question-and-answer periods.

Speakers & Moderators:

  • Let the audience know when you want to take questions (during/after).
  • Remind the audience about their responsibilities when asking questions (see below).
  • Give a 2-minute warning that question period is coming.
  • If your presentation is supposed to teach the audience, build in comprehension checks, which can also elicit high quality questions.
  • Moderators should try to find the next question during the previous answer.

Audience:

  • Respect the speaker's preference for when questions should be asked.
  • Questions should be high quality. Think before spending one of the few questions that fit into the allotted time.
  • Questions are questions that the speaker can respond to meaningfully, and the answer should be interesting to everyone in the audience.
  • Questions should be questions and they should be short. If you get stuck, "What do you think about that?" turns a soliloquy into a question.
  • One comeback, period.