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I have been on ‘the podium‘ innumerable times, as a speaker, teacher and panelist. I’ve also sat in the audience and watched my share of interesting talks, mediocre presenters, exhilarating speakers, boring script readers and painful, disastrous presentations. I once watched a conference speaker start their talk with 200 + people in the room and by the end of the hour there were less than ten people left and that included the sound man. Ouch. I don’t ever want that to happen to me.
I try and emulate successful speakers, the ones that I admire, and I am always looking for ideas that will help me get my message across better.

Some people are naturally gifted at speaking but most of us benefit from practice and studiously working on our stage skills. Don’t expect to walk on stage and be a hit without some work on your part. It takes preparation and forethought — at least it does for me.

I’ve formed a long list of opinions about what it takes to be successful on stage. Many more than I can fit in today’s post. Let’s start with the best way to handle questions during your presentation.

Questions and Answers.

Your talk is likely to elicit questions from your audience. You should know before you ever walk out onto the stage how you are going to deal with questions.

How you answer these questions will influence your audiences perception of you. There are several factors at play here. Naturally you will be evaluated on your technical knowledge: do you really know what you are talking about? Can you answer the question satisfactorily? There is another factor that is equally important during the question and answer exchange. How you interact with the questioner will influence how the audience feels about your personality (are you arrogant, rude, helpful, in control, calm or agitated) and will shape their ultimate opinion of you.

1. Don’t waste time.

Be cognizant of how much time you can afford to spend answering questions. In a sixty minute talk the maximum you can afford is about five minutes. In a longer talk you can be more flexible, say ten minutes for a ninety minute session.

2. Be aware of who your audience is.

Be sure and factor in the event type and your role. If you are the keynote speaker for a major conference then you should not be entertaining questions. Period. Panelists, on the other hand, are expected to interact with the audience and other panelists. Answering questions is part of the job. My point is that you should know what is expected of you: by the conference sponsors and by the audience members. Casual sessions, small teaching groups or day long sessions are more relaxed and interactive. Questions are a welcome part of the days experience.

Keynotes or short focused sessions – say a one hour session at VSLive or PDC – need more constraint. Use your stage time wisely, perhaps to show more code. You will get a long line of questioners as soon as you step off the stage at these events. Take the post event time to indulge your adoring fans .

Now having said this I’ve noticed that more and more conferences (especially some of the new blogger cons) are emphasizing audience participation and interaction. Again, know your audience. If Dave Winer is running the event and you know that he likes plenty of audience participation then tailor your talk to fit the circumstances. Prepare ahead of time. It’s your job to do so.

3. Don’t argue with your audience.

If a lively discussion or argument seems eminent stop it immediately. Getting in a fight with your audience is not good entertainment ( unless you like Jerry Springer) to most people. After the event you can discuss it all you want.

4. Don’t have a conversation with the questioner.

How many times have you seen a single question posed to a speaker turn into a five minute conversation between the speaker and the attendee. Boring! Do you think any one else wants to sit through this?

5. Repeat the question aloud to the room.

Alright, you’ve decided that you will field a few questions during your presentation. When the first question floats out of the room, always, always repeat the question. You have a microphone, the questioner doesn’t. How much of the original question will the rest of room hear? From my personal experience I know that it hard for me to hear the question and its being directed at me. What about your audience? It’s bad enough that you are interrupting the flow of your presentation to have a conversation with the questioner. Don’t make it worse by making the other 149 people guess what the questioner said.

If you paraphrase the question, be sure and ask the questioner if you have summed it up correctly. Example: "The question is whether smart clients are really deployable from a webserver. Am I hearing you correctly?" or "Have I summarized that correctly?"

6. Stop the rambling questioner.

Some people cannot ask a simple question. Oh no they can’t. Instead they start with a long preamble about their n-tier experience with COM, followed by a short rant about why you wrote your code in language-x when it would have been better if it had been written in language-y and then they start to digress to some other inappropriate topic.


Right now. They will ruin you if you let them ramble on. Ask them if they have a question? If they don’t take the hint, continue with your presentation. To sooth their ego say something like: "That sounds interesting but I don’t have time for this conversation right now. Come talk to me after my presentation. I’d like to learn more".

7. If you don’t know the answer to the question say so.

Honesty and sincerity are the cornerstones of your reputation. If you don’t know how to answer the question, fess-up. Encourage the questioner to ping you by email or to come talk to you after the session. After the session is the best time to research these unanswered questions.

I have to say one thing here though. If the question is a basic one – one that any speaker presenting this topic should know – and you don’t know the answer that’s a different problem .

You are lame. You have failed. You are a disgrace. You should prepare ahead of time.

Irregardless though, admit that you don’t know. Software developers (most technical audiences actually) can smell BS. Remember that many people in the audience are much smarter than you are. Remember that the PM for the technology that you are speaking on may be in the back of room watching you.

8. Never say "That is a good question".

I once endured a ninety minute talk where the presenter said "That’s a good question" after every question. It became a running joke during the event. Whenever there was a question from the audience my friends and I would look at each other and whisper "That’s a good question". Why do so many presenters use this phrase? Does that mean that other questions are poor questions? Stupid questions? Does the speaker really think that the question is so good? Be original. Be creative Try phrases like "That is a fascinating topic and I will be addressing it in twenty minutes" or "I’ve been thinking about that very question a lot lately myself".


When rehearsing your talk (you do rehearse don’t you?) think about each of these tips and try and incorporate them into your walkthrough. Pretend to field a question or two and practice repeating the question aloud. Envision the person standing in the audience raising his hand to get your attention. Hear the question in your head and imagine your response. Speak the words, repeat the question, speak the words, your mind will remember later when the spotlight is on you.

One last tip. Remember the most important part — enjoy your talk.



2/18/2005 5:11 AM Maxim V. Karpov


OdeToCode Links For February 20 2/20/2005 8:50 PM OdeToCode Links

 A couple of presentation tips 4/17/2005 9:04 AM Jason Haley

A couple of presentation tips

4/19/2005 2:54 PM Ken Getz

Walt: Great list! Couldn’t agree more. The "That’s a good question" thing nearly drove me crazy recently. Sitting in a talk, and the speaker not only said "That’s a good question" after each question, but his responses got more and more enthusiastic, up to the point where I thought he was going to have burst into spasms of joy with each ensuing question. DROVE ME NUTS. It’s just a time filler, like saying "um" a lot. Gives the presenter time to consider an answer. Bad, bad habit. I’ve also seen presenters go down in a tailspin after a question: they get so fixated on the question, they never recover their "balance". My theory is that in a 60-minute presentation, there ain’t much time for questions. And to be honest, it’s really all about controlling the room. If you lose control, the presentation is a goner. You can take questions, but you’d better be willing to grab control back and move it along.

4/19/2005 5:32 PM Walt Ritscher

Ken, I agree that the is very little room in a sixty minute talk for questions. The point I was trying to make is that a speaker MUST KNOW beforehand what they are going to do. If you analyze the time you have and determine ahead of time that you can only afford to take 1-2 question during your hour, you will be in better shape to handle them when they happen. I’ve seen presenters get bogged down at the start of their talk, spending 15 minutes or more on questions and then run out of time at the end of the talk for showing code.

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